Landsburg’s Crass Materialism

In his book, The Big Questions, Landsburg somehow manages to be both a fanatical materialist and a fanatical idealist all at the same time. The former is evidenced by the following:

Your brain contains about a hundred billion neurons… It’s the pattern of activity (as opposed to, say, the makeup of the neurons themselves) that generates your consciousness. If you were to build an artificial brain, with artificial neurons made of silicon, scrap metal, or cascading marbles, and if those artificial neurons interacted in the same pattern as the neurons in a human brain, your creation would be as conscious as you are. (8)

But why believe that “something as subtle and ethereal as a sense of delight could arise from a mere pattern of firings”? Landsburg answers:

It is quite thoroughly impossible for you or me to begin to imagine the complexity of a network of a hundred billion neurons.

So when we try to imagine it, we conjure up images of, say, several dozen neurons, interacting in complicated ways, and that image leads us badly astray.

It completely fails to account not just for the amount of complexity, but for the kind of complexity that can arise in a system with trillions of potential connections, containing systems and subsystems reflecting and modifying each other’s activity. (9)

It’s clear that “complexity” for Landsburg is a minor deity. It’s true that the fact that I can’t imagine / conceive X does not mean that X is impossible. A chiliagon is difficult to picture, but it is eminently possible and maybe even actual somewhere as perhaps an artwork of some sort. It is a strange interpretation of this truth, however, that my failure to imagine X is a sign that X is so complex that by some unknown mechanism, X must be actual!

Landsburg has fallen prey to a false superstition. Again, no one argues that his inability to “imagine” consciousness arising from a pattern of neuron firings is evidence for this thing’s impossibility. My skepticism about materialism does not depend on any inability to imagine anything. The problem is that, as Landsburg himself admits, at least in economics and unlike in the philosophy of the mind-body problem, “there is a fully fleshed-out theory detailing how you get from the pattern to the desired outcome.” (226) Without such a theory, our author is hamstrung. A market economy consisting of even 100 people is fully functional and works best without government interventions. Even Crusoe economics has definite value as a source of economic insights. On the other hand, Landsburg is clear that 100 neurons are insufficient to generate consciousness. He is, however, fully convinced that 100 billion neurons are sufficient, but neglects to give us the theory according to which such generation occurs. I can’t call this belief anything but a blind prejudice. This is standard materialist behavior, by the way: to treat skeptics with endless promissory notes that “in the future” such a mechanism will undoubtedly be found — notes which have never in the history of world been redeemed.

I can see — faintly — how a person can be a materialist; I cannot see how one can be a materialist and an economist at the same time. Human souls have wills which generate preferences, and intellects which allow them to rank desires on their values scales and make choices, something that billiard balls — or neurons — refuse to do. Humans act for ends and use means to attain them. Exercising choice is what “freedom” means in the term “free will.”

Again, Landsburg confesses that the “complexity” linking atoms with free will is mysterious, but owing to his materialism, he is sure that with progress in physics, etc. the complexity will at some point be understood. Free will, for him, is a fully material phenomenon.

And yet: consider that a machine has no purpose other than to serve man by performing a useful function. Its “goals” do not differ from those of its creator. It wants nothing for itself. It is a perfect slave. A human slave might try to hide his abilities so as not to be swamped with hard work; a machine would not “think” of anything so clever. Or, a master must make sure that the slave will prefer to comply with the master’s orders over rebelling; a machine does not in this manner calculate benefits and opportunity costs. A machine has no internal life or experiences that are inaccessible to anyone but itself. Where the machine ends and raw materials and the environment begin is an arbitrary decision.

It is amusing how carefully Landsburg avoids the use of the word “mind,” preferring “brain” instead. Let’s do some negative anthropology. I ask: Is man a body? Is the soul material? Note the subtlety that I am inviting a materialist to agree with me that the words “body” and “soul” mean different things; but the materialist is welcome to disagree with me on whether they refer to different things, as well. (For example, “brain” means “the portion of the vertebrate central nervous system enclosed in the skull”; “mind” means “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons.” The definitions could not be more different. The harder question is whether these are in fact self-same.) To answer this question, we need to know what matter is. It seems to be at least something that is necessitated to behave in a precise way in any given interaction under threat of instant corruption upon disobedience. But a human being does as he pleases. For example, I trust it will be agreed that the Constitution of the United States allows everybody the free choice between cheesecake and strudel. As a result, one will go neither to hell nor to prison if he chooses either. Since body and soul have different properties, they cannot be identical with each other (as per indiscernibility of identicals, the less controversial part of Leibniz’s law), and therefore, whatever the soul is, it is not material, is not a body.

Complexity may be capable of many things, but piling up neurons or atoms will not generate a soul. Neurons do not purposely seek happiness.

Confident assertions of metaphysical monism or panphysicalism can be deflected with a simple argument to the following effect:

1. We do not know, nor are we even close to finding out, how the soul and the body are linked, i.e., the nature of the dual connection of the intellect to (1) the body and (2) the will. It is not in vain dubbed in philosophy “the hard problem.”

2. Suppose the contrary: tough-minded monism is true. “There ain’t no such thing as soul.”

3. But then the mind and body are connected in the most intimate way possible, namely, by being numerically identical to each other.

4. Therefore, the monist claims to know exactly how the soul and the body are connected.

5. Which contradicts (1).

6. Therefore, monism is only an opinion, a metaphysical hypothesis, nothing more. It is at best a starting point in our investigation rather than a dogmatic foregone conclusion.

A dualist would not be stymied by this argument, because he is free to maintain that the soul and body have both different meanings (which the monist may admit) and different referents (which the monist cannot admit), while disclaiming any knowledge of how the two are united.

My view is that the brain’s job is not to aid thinking, let alone think on its own, but to limit the human power to think. Thinking is more difficult for an embodied human being than for a separated soul, but not too difficult. The brain is a hindrance to thought not its enabler, though a healthy brain is less a hindrance than a sick brain.

Real vs. Ideal: Ought Landsburg to Be Beaten with a Stick?

Landsburg’s abject materialism does not stop him from pronouncing that

my dining-room table is made of atoms, and numbers are surely not. But not everything that exists is made of atoms. I am quite sure that my hopes and dreams exist, but they are not made of atoms. The color blue, the theory of relativity, and the idea of a unicorn exist, but none of them is made of atoms.

Mathematical objects — such as the natural numbers and the laws of arithmetic — are real. (6)

Outrageous. What Landsburg really means is that these abstracta are objective, i.e., mind-independent: that “every positive integer is that sum of at most four squares… has been true forever, though it wasn’t proved… until the 1770. Because the facts of arithmetic were true long before humans existed, arithmetic cannot be a mere human invention.” (6) Arithmetic, of course, is not real but ideal; it exists in the mind.

Landsburg does not deign to reconcile his materialism with abstract objects or tell us how natural numbers and the laws of arithmetic can exist in a material brain. It would seem that no matter how hard he can peer into the firings of neurons with a microscope, he will not find the proposition “2 + 2 = 4” floating in the interstices of the brain.

On the other hand, feelings, such as my sorrow for Landsburg’s errors, though still ideal, are subjective. That I feel sorrow does not entail that Landsburg must. For that reason, we say that we think with our minds (intellects) but feel with our hearts (wills).

The elephant in the room is the question, if math existed long before humans came to be, then in whose mind did it exist?

In a stunning reversal, Landsburg then abandons his materialist monism in favor of idealist monism: “The Universe itself… is a mathematical pattern, containing your consciousness and mine as subpatterns. The Universe exists because it can; a logically possible universe is a mathematical object, and mathematical objects exist by necessity.” (14) He loves this idea, because “it obliterates the distinction between possible existence and actual existence. If some universes are merely possible while others are real, what distinguishes the real ones? The theory I’ve outlined makes it unnecessary to ask such uncomfortable questions. Any universe that can exist does exist; there’s no longer any need to explain why ours was granted special privileges. They’re all real.” (16)

But mathematical patterns are again ideal abstract objects and so must exist in someone’s mind. If our lives are abstract, as Landsburg alleges, then whose figment of the imagination are we? And why would Landsburg adopt such a pantheistic notion?

Failure to distinguish between the real and the ideal is a sign of serious madness. The idea of a unicorn may “exist” in Landsburg’s mind, but would he say that it also really exists? Does Sherlock Holmes really exist? If so, I ask him to point them out for me. A further distinction between abstract and concrete objects is that the former can be infinite in number. Thus, the cardinality of the set of all real numbers is continuum or aleph-one. But the number of real atoms in the universe must be finite. William Lane Craig in his book Reasonable Faith demonstrates with some skill how the various paradoxes of infinities prove that there is no such thing as an infinite multitude of real objects.

(Note that at the very least it’s impossible to show that real things are infinite in number, because we’d literally have to count them one by one, and we’d never finish counting, staying at every moment at a finite number no matter how large.)

Again, a certain Smith is seeing pink elephants in his alcohol-induced delirium tremens. He is disturbed and thinking of swearing off drinking. Out pops Landsburg and reassures Smith that his hallucinations are perfectly real; do not fear but rejoice, Landsburg thunders from overabundance of wisdom, for the holy firewater has given Smith super-powers to receive secret messages from another universe in which the pink elephants actually exist!

Our author believes that “the dividing line between ‘heart’ and ‘lungs’… is a human invention; at the molecular level, your body is a teeming mass of trillions of particles, with no natural division between ‘heart particles’ and ‘lung particles.’ Our brains create a clear distinction between lungs and hearts, and the science of biology enshrines that distinction, even though it’s not a fundamental aspect of reality.” (16-7) (Isn’t a “brain” also a mass of particles? What makes it special that it is able to create an intellectual distinction between itself, the heart, and the lungs, while the heart and lungs remain incapable of doing so?) He then reduces biology to chemistry (plus “baggage”), chemistry to physics, and physics to math. Math then is for Landsburg ultimate reality.

Now that’s nonsense. The ultimate reality is human subjective experience of all kinds. There are aspects of these experiences that exhibit certain regularities. When we focus on these regularities and thereby abstract away from the blooming buzzing confusion of immediate experience, we create science. And there are truths proper to tigers as tigers and not as random clouds of atoms; proper to hearts and lungs as biological organs and not as collections of chemical elements; proper to metals or noble gases as such elements and not to the protons and electrons of physics. Landsburg’s reductions of highly non-trivial substances to their purely material causes are unhelpful.

We do not get closer to “fundamental reality” by denying the self-evident truth of propositions like “this is a car”; “this is a lung”; “this is a human being”; and instead insisting that all these are “really” “teeming masses” of atoms.

In Chapter 5, Landsburg thinks he describes how humans and other animals perceive colors.

That flower you’re looking at reflects, let’s say, 8 units of red light, 4 of orange, …; call it (8, 4, 3, 2, 7, 6, 5) for short. …

Now seven numbers are more than your brain wants to keep track of, so your eye boils the information down from seven numbers to three. First it averages the 8, 4, and 3 (getting 5); then it averages the 4, 3, 2, and 7 (getting 4); … These averages — (5, 4, 6) are what gets sent to your brain. …

Only those three numbers matter. Therefore, different flowers, reflecting very different light distributions, can appear identical in color. …

The moral so far is that it takes an eye and a brain to create a color — and a different eye and a different brain might use very different rules. …

Color, then, is a biological phenomenon — it’s created in the brains of living things. Light, by contrast, is a physical phenomenon — it’s there whether or not anyone’s around to see it. The rainbow is physics. The color wheel… is biology. …

Incidentally, some animals (like eagles) have eyes that compute four or five separate averages, rather than three. This means the eagle can see a much richer array of colors than you can see. (46ff)

It should be clear at this point that Landsburg has confused an ideal model with a real thing. The eye and the brain in fact make no arithmetical calculations. Their functioning is modellable by math, but no numbers are crunched anywhere within the system. There is no homunculus-accountant within the eye that adds and divides “units of light.”

The motion of a baseball and the batter who hits the ball out can be described with the help of mathematical formulas. However, in choosing how to swing the bat, the player does not perform any calculations. Neither do the eyes actually average out any numbers. I can predict when my cat will be hungry by looking at a clock. That does not mean the cat’s stomach has a clock in it the position of whose hands physically causes hunger or signs of it like meowing. Biology is therefore not at all math + “baggage.” It has nothing at all to do with math, other than its ability to be modeled by math.

On p. 12, Landsburg concedes that a simulation is not the real thing but forgets John Searle’s warning with no qualms later in the book.

Landsburg’s Misunderstanding of Intelligent Design

Landsburg shows some grasp of the Intelligent Design paradigm, especially as it applies to biology. He points out that “‘irreducible’ complexity refers to the interaction of many parts, any one of which is useless without the others.” Actually, the entire biological machine is useless if even a single part is taken out. “Design proponents prefer to point, for example, to bacterial flagella consisting of about forty critical proteins,” he adds in a footnote.

Landsburg notes in passing that “complexity is the hallmark of unintelligent design.” I think he means chaotic complexity. But in intelligently designed machines complexity is complemented with unity. Thus, a car is a highly complex object and is indeed designed so well that it’s a tribute to human ingenuity. But it’s also one — it has a form, an essence, a definition: “a usually four-wheeled automotive vehicle designed for passenger transportation.” That’s why the intelligent design people do not look for complexity as such but for specified complexity (which is a more general notion than irreducible complexity), one that forms a meaningful, interesting, and independently specified pattern, such as indeed the bacterial flagellum which works marvelously.

Our author then proposes that both the ID theorists and their critic Richard Dawkins are misguided. The former think that all things that exhibit specified complexity are designed. But Landsburg has a counter-example: arithmetic. It “is so complex that no system of axioms — not even an infinite set of axioms — can fully describe it.” (31) Yet it is surely not designed. At the same time, Dawkins would have it that all complex systems demonstrate merely apparent design, as if an annoyingly fake gloss, but in fact have evolved from simple or more primitive tech. He, too, is wrong, says Landsburg, because arithmetic did not evolve from anything, let alone from anything simple.

I think that both Dembski and Dawkins can argue in their defense that they are not mad like Landsburg and do distinguish between the real and the ideal. ID concerns and makes claims about complexity as an intricate and highly functional and clever arrangement of real material parts in space and time, not ideal abstracta like numbers or a priori axiomatic-deductive systems like arithmetic. ID is perfectly silent about the latter.

Finally, a traditional theist can contend that arithmetic is undesigned only because it is part of the natural structure of the divine mind in which it exists with whatever else God is defined by and knows in a simple unity. Therefore, the complexity of arithmetic is not a fact that can blithely dissolve the Intelligent Design controversy.

Whether Immortal Souls Are Beyond the Purview of Science?

Landsburg asserts that they are on p. 31 of his Big Questions.

I take exception to this. They are certainly not beyond the purview of human and social sciences, of which economics is one. An economist distinguishes at least as a matter of methodology between intelligent beings who act with conscious purposes and unintelligent ones. A simple way to describe this difference is to say that humans, unlike all other earthly creatures, have intellectual souls. The study of these souls and their interactions is the domain of sciences like psychology, history, and economics.

It is true that these sciences do not need to assume or prove that human souls are naturally immortal, i.e., that once it has flared up, the light of reason can never be put out. But they can and ought to study, among other things, the consequences of the enduring popular belief that life and consciousness go on after physical death.

Why Recite the Articles of Faith?

In Chapter 6, Landsburg makes a number of claims, some of them false, and others rather good.

He begins by describing his Orthodox Jewish friend Misha proclaiming every day that “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, nevertheless I believe.” Landsburg objects in reply: “I believe with perfect faith that the square root of two is an irrational number, but I have never felt an ongoing need to announce that conviction to the Universe. That’s why I suspect that Misha is a liar.” The reason is that Misha must be brainwashing himself: “the ‘beliefs’ I echo are those I might want to believe, or those I’m trying to talk myself into, or those that I’m trying on for size. But when I pass the threshold to actual belief, I stop reviewing the matter.” (55-6)

But this confuses reason and faith as sources of belief. Thus, I believe that Christ is Lord with “perfect” faith, while Landsburg believes that “the square root of two is an irrational number” not with perfect faith but with perfect reason.

What is faith? It’s an assent of the intellect to the revealed knowledge of God. Specifically, “to faith those things in themselves belong, the sight of which we shall enjoy in eternal life, and by which we are brought to eternal life.” (ST, II-II, 1, 8) There are secret things that are of God that humans cannot discover by reason alone but that can only be known through divine revelation. Thus, the Bible relates: “Jesus spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].'” (Mt 13:34-35) Of course, Christianity itself is not an esoteric religion at all; all its gems are hidden in plain sight.

St. Thomas writes that faith stands midway between science and opinion. This becomes clear if we compare the relative strengths of the influences that impel a person to come to believe. A scientific demonstration of a conclusion will move the mind to accept the conclusion as true inexorably. Scientific evidence is seen either by sensation or reflection and hence has intrinsic power to convince. For example, seeing chlorine produced from salt is sufficient to persuade anybody of the correctness of the chemical reaction

2NaCl + 2H2O → Cl2 + H2 + 2NaOH.

On the other hand, faith requires an act of choice to give in to God-given disposition to believe and to accept the unseen knowledge revealed to one by God — knowledge that cannot be obtained by scientific investigation. One can go either way, but when the assent is given, the falsity of the propositions opposite to those that are the object of faith is not in doubt, precisely as is the case with scientific demonstrations.

By contrast, opinion is changeable and readily accepts the possibility of the opposite and so can at any time be swayed by new arguments: “the intellect assents to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other: and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith.” (ST, II-II, 1, 4)

Here is the clincher: this choice must be made anew every day, and therefore the confession of faith must be recited every day as a sign of one’s preference.

I find no need to keep declaring that God exists, either; I know it in the same way in which Landsburg knows the properties of the square root of two. I do not “announce to the Universe” that “there is a God, and He is simple, eternal, perfectly happy, all-knowing,” and so on. I already have excellent reasons for believing all this, having proved it to my satisfaction through philosophy. I may still invoke these facts in my prayer, anyway, insofar as “things which can be proved by demonstration are reckoned among the articles of faith, not because they are believed simply by all, but because they are a necessary presupposition to matters of faith, so that those who do not known them by demonstration must know them first of all by faith.” (ST, II-II, 1, 5, reply 3) Note, however, that the Nicene creed is only about faith-based knowledge, e.g., “We believe in… the Father, the Almighty, Maker of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” That God is a Trinity is a revealed truth.

Again, “the existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected,” says St. Thomas (ST, I, 2, 2, reply 1). This natural foundation for faith requires perfect intellectual consistency and coherence of natural theology. Any flaw in our metaphysics, concept of God, meaning of life, and so on can cause the entire structure of nature + grace to collapse. An intelligent person already suspicious of faith who perceives mistakes in our reasoning is unlikely to believe.

The choice to believe is neither irrational nor a type of violent self-brainwashing. It is aided from below by lack of contradictions in the purely rational conception of God and related matters, by how well the faith builds on natural knowledge, and by personal virtue that does not cloud the intellect through sin and hypocrisy; and from above by divine grace which creates a lyrical enchantment with the articles of faith. Faith and science are similar in the sense that assenting to true beliefs and rejecting false beliefs, as a rule, leads to happiness, while the opposite actions lead to misery.

Now science is amenable to new evidence. But then so is faith. Like science, faith improves with time and always has, both “in the number of articles believed explicitly, since to those who lived in later times some were known explicitly which were not known explicitly by those who lived before them” (ST, II-II, 1, 7); and in our understanding of them.

Finally, faith is not a purely speculative subject but is also a master plan of the life-long project of saving oneself, of earning heaven. Reciting the confession is a way to re-affirm one’s commitment against every temptation and evil. We can see that Misha, though a Jew and not a Christian, is acting 100% reasonably and honestly.

Living the Faith

Landsburg lodges a powerful accusation against even (on the surface) devoutly religious people. Suppose, he says, you could take any such person and “ask him, ‘Are the tenets of your religion true?’ and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I’m guessing that nine times out of ten, you’d find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there’s rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters.” (56-7)

He is probably right. But it’s that one case out of ten that changes everything. Now there were at least two figures in the Bible who did not become infidels upon facing grave danger to their children: Abraham and God the Father. Both sacrificed their only sons, Abraham for the sake of his fidelity to God; God for the sake of His fidelity to the world. And there are other instances, such as in the Golden Calf episode:

Moses’ anger burned… Moses stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” All the Levites then rallied to him, and he told them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!”

The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell.

Then Moses said, “Today you are installed as priests for the Lord, for you went against your own sons and brothers, to bring a blessing upon yourselves this day.” (Ex 32)

Aaron loyally remained Moses’ second-in-command even after God killed two of his own sons Nadab and Abihu. (Lev 10)

Again, Moses commanded the people of Israel:

If your brother, your father’s child or your mother’s child, your son or daughter, your beloved spouse, or your intimate friend entices you secretly, saying, “Come, let us serve other gods,” whom you and your ancestors have not known, any of the gods of the surrounding peoples, near to you or far away, from one end of the earth to the other:

do not yield or listen to any such person; show no pity or compassion and do not shield such a one, but kill that person. (Deut 13:7-10)

In the New Testament, Jesus declared that “I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’ Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:34-38)

Landsburg then suggests that most people do not love God more than family. Well, sure. Who can doubt that most Jews and Christians pale in comparison with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus — or indeed with the later martyrs who sacrificed themselves for their faith?

Why So Few True Believers?

Landsburg continues his argument that most believers are hypocrites by making some predictions.

Believers in hell should commit fewer crimes;

believers in heaven should take more risks;

believers in one religion should interact in predictable ways with believers in another;

believers in God should have a powerful interest in the alternatives.

And he is “confident that carefully gathered statistics could refute the hypothesis that religious beliefs are widely or deeply held,” contrary to spurious “survey data [that] indicate that a good 90% of Americans believe in God.” (63-6)

Let’s consider each prediction in sequence. As to crime, Christianity is divine grace that builds on and perfects human nature. There are unique moral precepts for Christians that do not apply to heathens. Abstaining from committing violent crimes and fraud, however, are not those. They belong not to the castle of grace but fully to its foundation of purely natural morality. “You shall not murder” is to be heeded by all men, whether religious or not, and of any religion whatsoever. Now Christianity holds that even the nature of man and the world is wounded. Therefore, there is an extra prerequisite for getting grace bestowed on one, namely, that his natural faculties must be healed first.

Nevertheless, synderesis or the habit of actual understanding of first principles, such as of ethics, is independent and prior to religion. Therefore, we should expect both believers and atheists to abide by the basic justice more or less equally.

In other words, both Christians and atheists risk being condemned to hell equally for doing evil. It is true, however, that only Christians know this. By virtue of this, they should be deterred much more efficiently. If a self-proclaimed Christian does commit a crime, he by that very fact demonstrates deep irrationality on his own part.

As to risks, belief in the afterlife should make believers cling less to this existence, says Landsburg. But what if an explicit general condition for salvation is this life prudently and shrewdly lived? Christianity has always maintained that martyrdom is not to be sought for its own sake. Jacob did not live to be 147 years old and to beget the twelve tribes of Israel by neglecting his physical health or life or earthly affairs. However, I agree that Christians should be willing to take extra risks for the sake of heavenly glory. St. Thomas adds: “if a man through fear of the danger of death or of any other temporal evil is so disposed as to do what is forbidden, or to omit what is commanded by the Divine law, such fear is a mortal sin: otherwise it is a venial sin.” (ST, II-II, 125, 3)

The reason to engage in “interfaith dialog” is to learn and try to reply to the objections that other faiths have against one’s own. St. Thomas explains it this way: the Christian

doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else…

Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another.

If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. (ST, I, 1, 8)

As for learning, I fully agree that it is a shame that so few Christians seek to understand their faith, especially by engaging with modern science. At the same time, Landsburg needs a reality check if he thinks that “true religious believers should have a passionate interest in fundamental physics…, but the bookshelves of the average churchgoer are no more likely than anyone to contain a good survey of, say, quantum chromodynamics.” (62) Does he really expect an average bus driver to understand such arcane subjects as advanced physics? The miracle of the Church is that it supplies everything needful for salvation even to the dullest of men while permitting a vast amount of freedom to the intellectuals. Landsburg of all people should approve of the division of labor.

This suggests that knowledge of “chromodynamics” is not necessary for true faith.

Further, let’s suppose Landsburg knows his chromodynamics. How has this helped him to learn more about God? Or at least which arguments has this knowledge supplied to him in favor of the non-existence of God? St. Thomas condemns the “sin of curiosity” in part “when a man desires to know the truth about creatures, without referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God: ‘in studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.'” (ST, II-II, 167, 1) Landsburg demonstrates mighty curiosity in his heart indeed in this book, but it seems to have borne no useful fruit for him.

This suggests that knowledge of chromodynamics is not sufficient for true faith.

It’s true then that most Christians fail to live their faith. It’s not a novel observation. God destroyed thousands of Israelites for murmuring against him and being “stiff-necked”:

The riffraff among them were so greedy for meat that even the Israelites lamented again,

“If only we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we have nothing to look forward to but this manna.” …

The Lord became very angry: “Therefore the Lord will give you meat to eat, and you will eat it, not for one day, or two days, or five, or ten, or twenty days, but for a whole month — until it comes out of your very nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Lord who is in your midst, and in his presence you have cried, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?'” …

There arose a wind from the Lord that drove in quail from the sea and left them all around the camp site, to a distance of a day’s journey and at a depth of two cubits upon the ground. … But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it could be chewed, the Lord’s wrath flared up against the people, and the Lord struck them with a very great plague. (Num 11)

Jesus Himself called Jews hypocrites at least a dozen times, such as in Mt 23.

How many physically healthy and fit people are there? How many are bodybuilders? They are a small minority. But saints are soulbuilders, and there are still fewer of them. Jesus pointed out: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14) What’s the surprise?

I’ll go even further than Landsburg. From Monday to Saturday, an average Christian should be expected to lose his faith until on Saturday, he is a semi-atheist.

The Catholic mass on Sunday is supposed to remind the people busy with their lives and problems why they are here, what God is, and of the means to salvation. It arrests the slide into apathy, ignorance, cynicism, and hopelessness.

At the same time, while the sacraments do signify via corporeal means the spiritual realities, they are no substitutes for them. The priests and teachers can only do so much.

Curiously, in Fair Play, Landsburg thought that Jesus was not divine for a non-trivial reason, namely, because Christianity is false and Judaism is true. Now that he’s become an atheist, he believes that for a completely trivial reason: because no one is divine, there is no such thing as divinity. That’s fine, but is he trying to make himself feel better by claiming that Christians don’t really believe, either? Don’t be so insecure, Steven.

Landsburg’s Non-Idea of God

On pages 34-5 Landsburg considers and rejects, incompetently, the ontological argument for the existence of God. It’s his only attempt at atheology.

But what is it whose existence he denies? What is God, as far as Landsburg is concerned? A god for him as a materialist might be some giant flying brain in the sky. But I, too, agree that this god is implausible. He already admits that there are some ideal things (that “are not made of atoms”), math propositions, say. But he considers the idea that there are immaterial minds crazy. How math propositions can exist outside of minds, outside of being thought or expressed by thoughts, he does not tell us. But regarding God, he is fighting an illusion. No theist actually believes in the giant brain in the sky. If materialism is true, then God is probably a hopeless notion. But that just begs the question.

Suppose I asserted, “Frood does not exist.” The obvious immediate question is, “What is Frood?” What is the nature of this thing which I insist does not exist? Until this question is answered, my original claim is entirely meaningless. Yet Landsburg proposes no idea of God of his own which he nevertheless is sure is not instantiated. There is nothing to go on here.

The correct method of theology is to note first that if God were like any creature, then it would be part of the created world and detectable by ordinary means. But such a thing would hardly be divine. In order to prove God’s existence, it is therefore necessary to show how something very much unlike creatures at least in degree but more important, in kind, must exist. We prove God’s existence by uncovering His astonishing attributes one by one until the idea of God or meaning of the term “God” has been (1) to the greatest possible extent elucidated and (2) rigorously demonstrated to refer to something real.

Landsburg shows no awareness of this procedure, which is why his efforts are lacking.

And of course, he contradicts himself with his fantastic theory, already dealt with in a previous post, that “every possible universe exists. … This idea… obliterates the distinction between possible existence and actual existence. … Any universe that can exist does exist… They’re all real.” (16) For surely, God is logically possible and can exist. According to Landsburg’s own half-baked philosophy, God then does exist.

Landsburg’s Careless Reductionism

Landsburg finds the fact that there are such phenomena as “extrasensory perception” (ESP) and free will self-evident. As examples of the former he gives the “perception that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is somewhere between 3.1415 and 3.1416” and like mathematical truths (70). Now he uses this term non-standardly. Merriam-Webster defines ESP as “perception (as in telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) that involves awareness of information about events external to the self not gained through the senses and not deducible from previous experience.” What Landsburg has in mind is not ESP but the human ability to come to know things by reflection as opposed to sensation. We can call it introspection, contemplation of a priori truths, understanding, or self-knowledge. One sees things not with his physical eyes but with the “mind’s eye.” There is nothing new in Landsburg’s appreciation of this capacity.

Yet it has nothing to do with the “6th-sense” perception of real-world “events external to the self.” Mathematical propositions are neither “events” nor are “external” to the thinker, being rather aspects of the logical structure of the mind itself.

Similarly, the human appetite is divided into sensual and intellectual. Before understanding “freedom” of the will, it is necessary to define the “will” itself. And that’s the intellectual appetite, the thing that feels emotions, generally “spiritual” joy and sorrow as distinct from sensual delight and pain. The difference is two-fold.

First, the latter comes through the five senses of the body: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. The former comes about through the exercise of the intellect or mind.

Second, there is a phenomenological difference in the kind and quality of experience of these two kinds of pleasures. The experience of eating a candy bar and enjoying its sweetness is different from the experience of being honored or solving a difficult problem. For no one really rejoices from eating a candy; on the other hand, though one’s soul is elated at being honored by a community or one’s peers, the senses are silent.

Again, let Smith resolve to follow a diet. Yet on one occasion he overeats. Here Smith’s delight produced by the sense of taste co-exists with intellectual sorrow of realizing that he has sabotaged his own project. Smith is upset even though he genuinely enjoyed the food.

Calculation of profits and losses can occur despite the fact that there are in man two appetites. For sensual pleasures are fed into the will which then tallies up the pleasures and pains, whatever their source. Mises agrees:

Acting man also rationalizes the satisfaction of his sexual appetites. Their satisfaction is the outcome of a weighing of pros and cons. Man does not blindly submit to a sexual stimulation like a bull; he refrains from copulation if he deems the costs — the anticipated disadvantages — too high. (HA, 668)

This distinction sheds light on the virtue of temperance as a kind of liaison, a middleman arbitrating between the delights of the senses and joys of the will. It moderates animalistic sensual pleasures, so as to not cause any harm to conscious purposive plans of the will — plans that may include abstaining from a given pleasure entirely.

Of the vices opposed to temperance, two are of note, both occurring when it is not the senses that are controlled by the will but the reverse: the will is a slave to the senses. The will can be such a slave involuntarily or voluntarily.

In the first case, a man constantly gives in to passions which ultimately harm him either in happiness or holiness, yet always regrets this giving in. This vice is called “incontinence.” The man is always tempted with pleasures or avoidance of pain and “cannot help himself.” Though he understands that he is so impulsive and easily dominated by lust or rage and resolves to moderate his passions again and again, he often fails. He knows overeating is bad for health but cannot resist delicious food. Etc.

In the second case, the man has deliberately chosen to pursue only sensual pleasures. He decided to order his life in such a way that he does not care for work or achievement or other people or wisdom but has lowered himself to the rank of animals, purposely seeking nothing but sensual gratifications: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, games, the pleasures of anger and vengeance, and so on. This vice is called “intemperance” and is much worse than incontinence, because the will has consented to being degraded like this.

A third vice has the name of “insensitivity,” wherein the senses are so weak that it is not worth for the will to govern them. An insensitive man does not even attend to the necessities of life like food and sleep and so forth; he is like an inanimate object, passionless, not caring for pleasures. He is not interested in sex. He never gets angry, even when anger is perfectly justified, e.g., if he has been cheated. This is also inhuman and bad.

Free-will, in contrast with the will, is the power of choice. If one desires x, then that which desires is the will; but that which chooses (the pursuit of) x, while setting aside y and z, is the free will. But both will and free will are the same faculty.

Free-will adds two differentiae to the will: first, the fact that not all desires can be satisfied, and therefore, desires have to be ranked according to urgency or subjective importance; second, the fact that no single state of the trinity within — i.e., ends chosen, knowledge of how to attain those ends, and the powers to make one’s dreams come true — is essential to man. Any material entity, if it stopped obeying its own natural laws, would cease to be what it was. It would instantly corrupt, and some new substance would be generated. It is true that the will seeks happiness by necessity, but a man is able to pursue happiness in a wide variety of ways: no particular manner of this pursuit is essential to him. A man can switch from pursuing x to pursuing y and remain a man, what he is.

(As a consequence, God in Himself, sans creation, has a will — in fact, each person of the Trinity has His own unique will, but not really free will, because God, being perfectly happy, is under no necessity to make choices between various satisfactions.)

All the human emotions experienced by the will, too, are ideal, except as already noted, they are not objective like proposition-expressing thoughts but subjective.

With these considerations out of the way, let’s examine Landsburg’s attempt to reconcile “ESP” and free will (i.e., reflection and a priori deduction for the intellect and feelings and a priori synthesis for the will) with his materialism. He sets up the problems as follows: “Physics, at least at the level of neurons, is essentially deterministic: If you know the state of a system on Monday, and have sufficient computational power, you can predict with certainty the state of the system on the following Friday. Human beings are physical objects. Ergo, … Where, then is there room for free will?” (68)

Unfortunately, there is very little substance here. Just as before, Landsburg blithely resorts to the deus ex machina of “complexity.” Thus, he writes:

What caused Hurricane Katrina?

Water vapor rising from the ocean’s surface condensed to form clouds, releasing heat and causing an area of low pressure, sucking in air and creating winds that caused still further evaporation and fed the cycle. … [It’s] just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of air and water molecules. … But that doesn’t mean evaporation isn’t real.

He issues a similar explanation for freely chosen human actions:

What caused your decision to get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before your philosophy final?

Free will. … [This, too, is] just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of neurons, which in turn can be described in terms of quadrillions of atoms and quintillions of subatomic particles. So what? You still have free will, and you know it. (69)

We both agree there is free will. We even agree that determinism is true. But Landsburg does not, as I do, ultimately distinguish between physical causation proper to merely material objects and teleological causation proper to human beings. The former is roughly illustrated by one billiard ball hitting another; the latter, by the situation in which a person’s future expected utility causes him to act for the sake of achieving his goal.

Note one crucial difference between these. In physical causation, the cause is before the effect: the first ball is in motion before it moves the second ball; in teleological causation, it is after the effect, as one’s projected pleasure in the future motivates one to spring into action in the here and now. Landsburg reduces teleology to physics implausibly on its face and without doing any work of supplying the alleged missing mechanism that causes the physical “process involving trillions of neurons” to give rise to a human action. Apparently, he expects me to treat his “complexity” as a sort of god and simply agree with him on pure faith. But I already have my own faith; I don’t need this one.

Again, as a materialist and unlike a dualist, Landsburg is required, as already shown, to put forward a well-grounded and testable theory of how his reduction works. For Hurricane Katrina, he does. For one’s decision to get drunk, he conspicuously does not. Therefore, his analogy from the hurricane to free will is inadequate and fails.

Diogenes’ Unnecessary Nightmare

In Chapter 8 Landsburg propounds an amazing argument. This one bears a long quote:

Suppose I have good reasons for betting on the Yankees; you have equally good, but entirely different, reasons for betting on the Red Sox. I don’t know your reasons and you don’t know mine. Nevertheless, the instant I hear you’re betting on the Red Sox, I should question my faith in the Yankees. True, I don’t know why you’re betting on the Red Sox — but surely you have some reasons. So, to put this bluntly, why should I trust my own opinion any more than I trust yours?

Well, here’s why: Maybe I have some very good reasons to stick with the Yankees. (Maybe I met a doctor who’s treating the Red Sox’s best starting pitcher for bursitis.) That’s fine. So I stick with the Yankees. And as soon as I announce that I’m sticking with the Yankees, you can infer that I’ve got some very good reasons for my opinion. You have no idea what those reasons are, but you know I find them quite convincing — convincing enough to overcome the momentary shock of hearing that you favor the Red Sox. Now your faith is shaken. Are you sticking with your opinion? If so, that tells me that you must have very good reasons, which shakes my faith even further. Do I still stick with the Yankees? Only if my reasons are very very good, in which case you know that my reasons are very very good. So our conversation goes something like this:

You: I’m betting on the Red Sox.
Me. I hear you. But I’m betting on the Yankees.
You. Well I hear you, but I’m still betting on the Red Sox.
Me: I still say Yankees.
You: I still say Red Sox.
Me: Yankees.
You: Red Sox.
Me: Yankees.
You: Red Sox.
Me: Okay. Red Sox.

Appearances to the contrary, new information is conveyed at every stage of the conversation. (77-8)

Remarkable. Every discussion motivated by honest truthseeking must, according to our author, end in some kind of equilibrium through just this sort of abjectly trivial dynamics.

Really? But one’s confidence in the truth of one’s opinion is an emotional component of the opinion. It’s a feeling of the intensity of certitude. And a feeling cannot be evidence of any kind.

Your confidence that P is not a rational argument against my belief that ~P. “Conversing” with each other in the above manner need not make me doubt my own beliefs; for all I know, your confidence, a feeling, exists for all the wrong reasons, namely because you’ve made a mistake you have not discovered. And I cannot help you to discover your error (or you, mine) simply by vomiting my conclusion at you however many times.

Even if I pause to wonder what makes you so sure, without a refutation of the actual argument that convinced me, I see no reason for me to change my opinion. In fact, the more times the Landsburgian exchange is repeated, the less — not more — value I should place on your opinion, because you show yourself increasingly more emotionally committed to your belief, more fanatical, more devoted, and this attitude, I would judge, is a sign precisely that your rational judgment is clouded.

The “information” that “is conveyed at every stage of the conversation” is not about the strength of the argument but only about the vehemence of the emotion accompanying it. It is of the will not the intellect. Therefore, it is entirely useless for “honest truthseeking.”

Further, even if the intensity of feeling or the fire and fury in one’s heart mattered in a rational argument, there would the problem of comparing such intensities interpersonally. In an illustration, Landsburg assigns cardinal numbers to them: my 7 out of 10 vs. your 8 out of 10, but this is obviously hopeless in the real world.

Finally, suppose that one party is actually lying. You claim that the three angles of a triangle add up to two right angles. Your interlocutor pretends to passionately disagree forever. The exchange continues until you concede that you are wrong. This seems unhelpful.

It is clear that Landsburg has confused contemplative life in which we seek not the truth but rather good reasons to believe things, with active life in which we just need the truth regardless of whether we are well-justified in believing it or not — since basing our actions on false beliefs is almost guaranteed to cause us to fail. The former activity utterly precludes the Landsburgian “equilibration.” The latter activity does not.

That Landsburg’s theorem applies only to active life, i.e., to the human pursuit of happiness, becomes obvious when he uses it to (viciously, unjustly, and exasperatingly) condemn both gamblers and entrepreneurs as irrational:

Why do professional gamblers bet against each other, rather than treating each other’s opinions as seriously as their own? …

The answer, I guess, is that gamblers aren’t in it only for the money. They’re in it also for the prestige of being right when the other guy is wrong. You can’t earn that prestige without staking out a contrarian position now and then.

Ditto for stock-market investors.

Virtually all economists agree that if you’re out to make money, it’s crazy to try to “beat the market”; lionizing the man who does beat the market is like lionizing the man who manages to flip heads twenty times in a row.

Nevertheless, men and women who beat the market are lionized. If you want to be admired for your investment prowess, you’ve got to act as if you disagree with the crowd — and then hope for good luck. (84)

In the first place, then, Landsburg likens entrepreneurship to gambling. This is an astonishing, shameful, even inhuman mistake. Is Landsburg autistic?

Human prudence, the virtue that governs the active life, takes as inputs both physical causality provided by knowledge and teleology provided by understanding. One understands human actions; since present understanding, no matter how deep, does not allow perfect prediction of future human actions, these actions create a surprising world; and one must be courageous, as well as adaptable, confident, quick-witted, and in possession of presence of mind in order not to be dismayed by any sudden development, come what may. If it is an opportunity, then one must seize it before others catch on; if it is a disaster, then one must minimize the damage and turn things around ASAP.

Regarding knowledge, one may know something with 100% certainty or be completely ignorant. In between, there are probabilities. Persons who count on their power to estimate probabilities accurately and use them in their favor to obtain profits are called gamblers.

Regarding understanding, things are analogous yet different. One either understands another human being very well and can surmise his next moves, or that other person is a complete stranger. In between, there is “discernment of spirits,” insight into another’s soul, his character, motivations, aptitude, etc. Whenever one is counting on his spiritual insight to guide him toward profits, whatever he is doing, it cannot be called gambling. One who counts in addition on his emotional intelligence and acuity to help him deal with his customers and beat his rivals is not a gambler but an entrepreneur. Now it will immediately be pointed out that an entrepreneur performs a social function: he rearranges production in such a way as to improve consumer well-being. That is correct, but in order to do that, the entrepreneur must have precisely insight into the moods and mental states of both his customers and his competitors. It is his deep understanding that makes an entrepreneur successful and a servant to the people at the same time.

We can see that speculation on the stock market and suchlike can in no wise be called gambling but must rather be labeled entrepreneurship. How has Landsburg been able to have a career as an eminent economist without understanding the difference? But in his defense, it probably stems from his unthinking commitment to the methodology of his Chicago school of economics, as well as from his materialist monism.

Now as a matter of fact, the modern stock market has unfortunately partially deteriorated into a gambling machine (1) in which people place bets on their estimation of business cycles, and (2) through which they hope to protect their savings from inflation. In my book I criticize the culture of mass investing as a grotesque reaction of the people precisely to these two economic perversions. Still, the general point stands.

Even Keynes argued in a letter: “Is not the rule [for an investor] to be in the minority? It is the only sphere of life and activity where victory, security, and success are always to the minority and never to the majority. When you find anyone agreeing with you, change your mind.” Keynes was a better entrepreneur than he was economist.

Of course, Landsburg’s answer proves too much. Forget the stock market; why do people start their own privately owned (as in, not traded publicly) businesses at all if it’s impossible to beat the market? But what is the “market” if not existing firms operating close to equilibrium, i.e., the economic status quo? Small companies routinely grow and become big; big companies implode and disappear. Great profits are garnered and soon are arbitraged away. Factors of production flow from one business owner to another; from one purpose in the economy to another, as businessmen plot and plan their moves and countermoves; Schumpeter considered it the essence of economic progress that entrepreneurs find novel uses for old things. New products appear and if successful, are imitated and improved upon. In this market process, unimagined new wealth is created.

There is certainly no need to ascribe strange motives to people like the vainglorious desire to humiliate their rivals. Entrepreneurs put their own lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line. They want to succeed and profit. They are in it for the money. Of course, there is competition, but success in business is not a random win like in roulette in a casino; every firm, every business plan, and every human action that executes the things planned are perfectly unique and uniquely differentiated from all others of their kinds.

It’s a sad state of affairs that an economist of Landsburg’s stature would consider men to be machines and economic science to be a kind of applied physics. But we’ll have a chance to discuss this problem later on in this review of Big Questions.