Hey, NYC, invite me to speak!

I’ll be in New York City August 9th and 10th for my college debate group’s annual summer alumni debate.  While I’m in the neighborhood, I’d love to drop in to a bookstore or a theology on tap or a philosophical group to talk about anything from ways to have productive debates, my conversion, strategies for compassionate and compelling interfaith dialogue, Bayesian statistics for everyday use, weirder (and thus easier) ways to start conversation about marriage as an institution, or, as always, musical theatre.

I’ll be tied up in the evenings arguing with my debate friends, but I’d be free before 6pm.  And if you’re looking for examples of my public speaking to pitch a group with, my talk at Chicago Ideas Week on the Ideological Turing Test and my interview with CNN about my conversion are online.  You can email me at leah.libresco@gmail.com.

Currently, I’m at the Fare Forward Summer Symposium, and had a lot of fun giving a talk on the Ideological Turing Test (which starts Monday!).  If you invite me to speak to a group in NYC, you can find out what led up to the final line of today’s talk:

“And that’s a much better prize than the bloody scalps of my enemies. Questions?”

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

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  • KG

    Since you again express a willingness to speak publicly about your conversion, then can you please address the following family of questions that has come up repeatedly in comments on this blog and that you have not directly addressed in the time since your conversion:

    How has your view on miracles, especially those underpinning the Christian faith, changed since your conversion? Is there any tension at all between the Bayesian approach to evaluating evidence that you use in daily life and the manner in which you evaluate the evidence for these miracles? How can moral introspection lead to an evaluation of the specific claims that Christianity makes about what is physically possible, such as a resurrection and a virgin birth?

    • LeahLibresco

      Shifted my priors on the plausibility of miracles given Catholicism. There aren’t really any I’ve looked into to the point of credence.

      • KG

        Could you please elaborate? To shift your priors, there is reasoning involved. What was that reasoning? What was the evidence? How does an agreement with some, but not all, of the moral claims that Catholicism makes lead you to be so sure about all its claims about physical reality?

        There aren’t any miracles that you’ve looked into to the point of credence? Well, there are at least two miracles that you must affirm weekly as a Catholic, the resurrection and the virgin birth. They seem to form part of the foundational creeds. Surely you’ve looked into them more since your conversion. What evidence persuaded you?

        • Thomas Henry Larsen

          Not to speak at all for Leah, but it’s not as if Christian scholars in general have failed to look at miracles from a Bayesian perspective – one thinks, for example, of Timothy and Lydia McGrew’s excellent article on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. [1]

          [1] “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,” in Craig, William Lane and Moreland, J. P. (eds.) (2009), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Blackwell Publishing.

          • KG

            Thanks for the reference.

            I acknowledge that Bayesian analyses of the foundational Christian miracles exist. But my question is again directed at Leah specifically. She is well-versed in both Bayesian analysis and Christianity, so she is well-positioned to discuss the matter. Additionally, the fact that she operates a blog means that it is much easier to engage in dialogue with her than with other authors who have written on the topic.

  • Well, if I had a forum for you to speak I’d do it. Nonetheless enjoy the city. Check out our wonderful museums or the NY public Library or perhaps even just Central Park.

  • Martel

    Hi KG,

    While I do not presume to speak for Leah, I may be able to help answer some of your questions regarding the evidential approach to miracles. I’ll be brief in this post, but will enlarge on the topic if in your response you ask me to.

    You ask Leah to describe how her Bayesian approach to the evaluation of evidence is applied to Christian miracles. While I cannot say what Leah’s personal approach is, it’s probable that her application of Bayesian probability theory is similar to that used by other Christians. The philosopher Richard Swinburne, for instance, has analyzed the bodily resurrection of Christ using Bayesian methods in his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I recommend the book; it might prove instructive for anyone prone to assume a “tension” between the day-to-day, practical application of Bayesian probability and its application to Christian miracle claims.

    Another question you ask is, “How can moral introspection lead to an evaluation of the specific claims that Christianity makes about what is physically possible, such as a resurrection and a virgin birth?”

    Again, while not pretending to present Leah’s own views, I’d just like to point out that the connection between morality and the probability of miracles was noticed and described in detail by Cardinal Newman in his Essays on Miracles (1826). He writes, “The Miracles of Scripture…are irregularities in the economy of nature, but with a moral end; forming one instance out of many, of the providence of God, that is, an instance of occurrences in the natural world with a final cause. Thus, while they are exceptions to the laws of one system [the physical order], they may coincide with those of another [the moral order]. They profess to be the evidence of a Revelation, the criterion of a divine message. To consider them as mere exceptions to physical order, is to take a very incomplete view of them.”

    So the recognition of objective moral laws, followed by the inference that such laws have their origin in God as Moral Governor, cause purportedly miraculous events, rendered improbable on account of their deviation from physical laws, to become more likely.

    To take the Virgin Birth as an example. For a birth to take place without a man to provide the sperm, is physically impossible, when modern biology and a conception of the universe as a causally closed system are the only background assumptions. But if belief in God as a Supreme Power–capable of intervening in the natural course of events–and as a beneficent Moral Governor–willing to intervene in the natural course of events for the purpose of designating a particular Infant as His Only Son–is added to the collection of background assumptions regarding the credibility of the testimony of Scripture which relates the story, the Virgin Birth becomes not only possible (a sperm created ex nihilo by God causes a birth that is otherwise non-miraculous), but probable (God had a manifest reason to effect such a birth).

    • KG


      Thanks for the response and the references. I appreciate the time you took to select them for me.

      I still would like to know Leah’s thoughts on the matter. She seems to have contradicted herself a moment ago by saying that she hasn’t looked into any miracles to the point of credence. Perhaps she meant “…in addition to the core miracles enumerated in the creeds?” The fact that this contradiction arose indicates to me that there is still something unresolved in her understanding of Christianity and Catholicism as making claims about physics in addition to morality.

      But I’d also be interested in pursuing this a little further with you, Martel (and Leah, should she decide to tackle this again). The claim that the moral order can supersede the physical order is a hugely audacious one. We’ve had great success understanding the physical order empirically, and seeing our models successfully applied across many order of magnitude of time and space, of which humanity is but a minuscule part. As far as we can probe it empirically, the universe *is* causally closed, and this fact should be included in the calculation of prior probabilities that we use to evaluate claims of the incarnation and resurrection. I don’t think Swinburne does that.

      The claim being made is that all this physical understanding is capable of being overturned at any time by a personal God who loves humans. But this violation is not done in a way that can stand up to replicated study or experiment today. It happened once, a long time ago, with a handful of secondary sources to attest to it, yet we must accept it as an instance in which material causality was violated.

      Moreover, those who buy into this new view of causality are faced with the task of explaining why they believe the validity of certain miracles over others. Why not Joseph Smith and his golden tablets? Why not the ascension to heaven by Mohammed and the authority of his teachings? And so on. Scholars from each religion have their own explanations for why the historical evidence backing up their claims is more reliable than that supporting other, incompatible religions. One of these arguments may be correct. But it is much harder to know that with a high level of certainty when empirical metrics aren’t available. My point here is that the “crowding out of miracles by miracles” should also play a role in the Bayesian analysis of religious claims.

      • Martel

        Hi KG,

        When Leah writes, “Shifted my priors on the plausibility of miracles given Catholicism…[t]here aren’t really any I’ve looked into to the point of credence,” I believe what she means to say, based on context, is that while she has modified her background assumptions so as to render miracles epistemically plausible–so that she can assent to them–she hasn’t used Bayesian probability theory to investigate any one in particular with respect to its “credence,” or believability. This seems to be the most natural reading of her words, in light of the fact that she publicly professed the Apostolic Creed (which includes affirmations of certain foundational Christian miracles) during her Rite of Confirmation.

        As to your additional questions about miracles: I have to once again recommend that you read at least a few books by Christian philosophers on miracles before venturing into an in-depth critique of their credibility. As of now (and I mean no offense in saying this), I have the strong impression that yours is more or less an argument from incredulity, an incredulity that–arising as it does from an atheistic worldview and an acceptance of modern science–is in many respects understandable. The problem is that correcting incredulity with respect to a certain subject matter typically requires ample study of the opposition’s perspective. A Creationist, for example, steeped in the works of Michael Behe et al. will naturally approach the most common evolutionary claims with rejoinders of incredulity–“If men evolved from apes, why are there still apes”; “In consideration of the intricate composition of the eye, it’s laughable on its face to assume mere natural selection is responsible for it”; “The paucity of transitional fossils proves the untenability of macroevolution”; “If evolution were true, to get birds, land-based creatures would have to incrementally evolve wings, but the acquisition of wings requires the prior development of rudimentary appendages that are decidedly disadvantageous for survival, so you can’t get birds with evolution, therefore evolution is false… etc.” An evolutionary biologist, when met with such responses from a Creationist interlocutor, would do well to recommend to him Origin of Species and perhaps some few neo-Darwinian works, in order to lay the groundwork for more fruitful discussion in the future.

        My point, KG, is that it would behoove you to read Essays on Miracles (Newman) and Resurrection of God Incarnate (Swinburne) so that you might gain a more thorough knowledge of how Christians might approach the epistemic status of miracles. But I will try to be helpful and briefly respond to some of your misgivings.

        “The claim that the moral order can supersede the physical order is a hugely audacious one.”

        Only to someone who doesn’t believe that a God exists who is both capable of and predisposed to doing so.

        “We’ve had great success understanding the physical order empirically…As far as we can probe it empirically, the universe *is* causally closed, and this fact should be included in the calculation of prior probabilities that we use to evaluate claims of the incarnation and resurrection.”

        Empirical science assumes the universe is causally closed. Methodologically, it admits only natural causes; axiomatically, it excludes supernatural ones. Therefore, it can hardly tell against the probability of miracles.

        “I don’t think Swinburne does that [i.e., adds as a background assumption ‘Empirical findings bespeak a causally closed universe’].”

        Correct, and the reason he doesn’t is that empirical science, since it assumes a causally closed universe, cannot be cited in support of a causally closed system.

        “The claim being made is that all this physical understanding is capable of being overturned at any time by a personal God who loves humans.”

        Certainly not. The physical understanding is not being “overturned” by miracles, because the practice of empiricism in no way demands a conception of the universe as a causally closed system. Empiricism requires methodological naturalism, not metaphysical naturalism.

        “But this violation is not done in a way that can stand up to replicated study or experiment today.”

        Because miracles are the prerogative of God, and not of men, they cannot be repeated unless by God’s will. [N.b., the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius, an allegedly recurring miracle, can (and in fact has) been made subject to scientific analysis (with mixed conclusions).]

        “It happened once, a long time ago, with a handful of secondary sources to attest to it, yet we must accept it as an instance in which material causality was violated.”

        The claim is that such an acceptance is not irrational given a certain (rational) set of background assumptions.

        “Moreover, those who buy into this new view of causality are faced with the task of explaining why they believe the validity of certain miracles over others. Why not Joseph Smith and his golden tablets? Why not the ascension to heaven by Mohammed and the authority of his teachings?”

        This is a very good question, one which Cardinal Newman treats specifically in Section 2 of his work, where he lays down criteria for the acceptance of miraculous occurrences, and claims that only Christian miracles can be shown to meet the criteria. In my own case, I regard significant evidence for a single miraculous occurrence within a religious system (e.g. the bodily resurrection of Christ within Catholicism) to support the other miracles claimed within that religion. To me, the evidence in support of the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Christ far outstrips any of the miracles claimed by other religions. (N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God is an impressive presentation of the evidence.)

        “My point here is that the ‘crowding out of miracles by miracles’ should also play a role in the Bayesian analysis of religious claims.”

        Remember that it is possible to use Bayesian analysis to examine the credibility of any individual miracle, professed by a religion, without also analyzing that religion’s broader doctrines and truth claims. Then, if a high Bayesian probability of that miracle is determined, it can lend more Bayesian probability to that religion’s other truth claims.

        • KG

          Note: I edited this a few times during the first ten minutes of the posting. I’m done editing now.

          I do acknowledge that to understand all the nuances of the argument, I’ll need to read more. But it’s much faster to drill down to the bedrock of the disagreement through exchanges like this, so thanks again.

          And the bedrock seems to be the issue of whether or not the physical universe is causally closed, and if it isn’t, then the means of ascertaining how and when the physical causal order is violated.

          My position remains that we should rely on physical probes of the world to answer address this question as far as we can. And then, for the parts of reality that remain elusive (consciousness, qualia, free will), admit a certain degree of ignorance. Moral introspection, on the other hand, seems subjective, human-centric in a universe that is not human-centric, and generally unreliable.

          You state several times that empirical science *assumes* that the universe is causally closed. I don’t think that’s the best description. Instead, I would say that empirical science assumes that the best way to learn about the universe is by probing it experimentally. And then, as far as we can probe it, the fact that the universe appears causally closed and conforms to laws we can write down is a *result* of investigation.

          What makes Christianity (and some other religions) different, in my view, is its valuation of non-empirical evidence to address the nature of physical reality. The core violations of the physical order underlying Christianity (the virgin birth and the resurrection) are based on moral introspection and historical secondhand accounts, not on any observation we can make today.

          So to reiterate, the bedrock of the disagreement lies in what types of evidence we trust to tell us about reality, not an a priori view of the extent to which the universe is causally closed. And this, once again, is the question that I wish Leah would revisit now that she has converted. She has discussed Christianity’s value to her in addressing moral questions, but implicit in her conversion, via the creeds, she has also given it precedence in matters of physics. I would like to know why she did that.

          • Martel


            I have to say that I am enjoying this discussion so far, because it seems to me you are asking the right questions (although again, I believe it would be beneficial for you to examine the authors I’ve mentioned, to provide a corrective to unwarranted incredulity).

            Although I have very little time in which to respond, I will try to hone in on what you’ve kindly cited as the “bedrock” of our disagreement, i.e., the question of whether, and how we can determine if, the universe is causally closed.

            You keep emphasizing empirical science. How relevant is it for determining whether the universe is causally closed?

            Empirical science is a method of discerning certain truths about our universe. It is a truth-telling thing, but not the only truth-telling thing.

            Mathematics is a non-empirical truth-telling thing; it allows us to discern truths about the universe that cannot be determined using empirical analysis. For example, the ability to solve the interior angle measurements of a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-sided regular polygon requires no test, experiment, or repeatability. Nor does such a determination require even the physical existence of such a polygon. Rather, the proper conceptual application of a certain mathematical relation is all that is needed.

            Logic is a non-empirical truth-telling thing. “If X, then Y. X, therefore Y.” is an analytic truth. It is “already” true, even before it is confirmed by physical reality. No test, experiment, or repeatability is required to confirm it.

            Metaphysics is a non-empirical truth-telling thing. “If a contingent being exists, a necessary being exists” is a metaphysical truth. Unlike the truths of logic, it is not wholly analytic: you have to experience a contingent thing to know it is true. However, no test, experiment, or repeatability is required to verify this truth; it is known solely through rational analysis.

            The point is: empirical science depends upon mathematical, logical, and metaphysical truths in order to function. Therefore, if a metaphysical proof of the existence of God, such as the Cosmological Argument, is demonstrated, it cannot be “refuted” by empirical science any more than “X=X” or “2+2=4” can be “refuted” by empirical science.

            Now, by my lights, the (right version of the) Cosmological Argument is both valid and sound. The conclusion of this argument is not only that God exists, but that He is a metaphysically Necessary Being upon which everything in the universe depends for its existence. This means that God causes the existence of all things in the universe.
            So what does this tell us about whether the universe is a causally closed system?
            Well, if everything that exists is caused by God, then it isn’t a closed system. But everything isn’t directly caused by God. Things in the universe, because they have natures and potentialities, can act as causes and react as effects. In this sense, the collection of all things in the universe constitutes a system of interaction.
            Now that system of interaction is typically upheld and sustained by God indirectly, but that does not mean that God cannot intervene directly into that system.
            By this reasoning, miracles are possible. And, please note, empirical science adds precisely nothing with respect to determining their possibility.

          • KG

            “You keep emphasizing empirical science. How relevant is it for determining whether the universe is causally closed?”

            The strict answer is that it can’t with certainty. But our argument is really about whether or not it is the best tool we have with regards to making statements about what goes in in the universe (I address this further below).

            “Mathematics is a non-empirical truth-telling thing.” Sure, it tells truths about mathematical systems. But there are many mathematical systems that don’t have any connection to physical reality. When it comes to physics, we need some connection to empirical observations for the math to be as useful and powerful as it often demonstrates itself to be.

            “Logic is a non-empirical truth-telling thing.” Again, I agree. I actually don’t see this as fundamentally distinct from your point about math. Logical consistency is a certain type of truth, but not every logically coherent idea is physical.

            “Metaphysics is a non-empirical truth-telling thing.” This is more controversial. When do we know we have found a metaphysical truth? There are many metaphysical questions that are hotly debated to this day. The “truths’ that metaphysics outputs do not achieve the same consensus as those of math and logic. Unique, correct answers might exist, but our task remains to determine the best manner in which to arrive at them. We’ll need to identify the instances in which we can make metaphysical claims with certainty, versus the instances in which the most honest approach is admitting a certain amount of metaphysical ignorance.

            The Cosmological Argument is a prime example. It is open to a variety of attacks, including the notion that its necessary being is merely logically necessary and not metaphysically necessary. I am sure you have a response for that, and the literature on the topic is of course vast. We can take that up further, or we can proceed to what I think is a more relevant objection:

            What is the exact nature of the God that is referenced in the Cosmological Argument? It seems to me that, even if the argument succeeds, it succeeds only in making a very narrow claim: that the universe came from “something”. No more, no less. Jews, Muslims and Hindus may use a variant of the cosmological argument to argue for the existence of a God who did not in fact become flesh etc.

            “Things in the universe, because they have natures and potentialities, can act as causes and react as effects. In this sense, the collection of all things in the universe constitutes a system of interaction… Now that system of interaction is typically upheld and sustained by God indirectly, but that does not mean that God cannot intervene directly into that system. ”

            Perhaps, but whether or not God intervenes can in principle be detected empirically: we could observe the violation in a non-ambiguous way. We have not (although maybe you disagree here?).

            “…please note, empirical science adds precisely nothing with respect to determining their [miracles] possibility.”

            We agree that empirical science can’t speak about miracles with certainty, but we do disagree on whether it can speak to their plausibility. I can name any number of potential miracles that occurred to me today, and you would be justified in finding them implausible if they contradicted the manner in which you know the physical world to generally operate. Here, I think, is one place where Leah did once agree with me, and perhaps still does.

            So, can the question of the foundational Christian miracles be answered any other way besides unambiguous observation? You and Leah (and many Christian luminaries) seem to think that morality provides a key part of the answer. This remains baffling to me, partly because of how slippery I observe moral reasoning to be. The diversity of strongly held moral convictions attests to this. And even though Leah has gone all-in with respect to Catholicism precisely because of moral arguments, she is still deeply uneasy about many of its moral stances. And, just like the Cosmological Argument, the moral arguments lead to many different conclusions in the minds of many thoughtful, pious individuals.

            More fundamentally, it still seems that applying moral reasoning to physics is to commit a category error, akin to not recognizing the difference between math and empirical science. The is/ought distinction remains in effect.

            Again, I can’t entirely preclude the possibility that there exists a Correct Form of Moral Reasoning. Even if that CFMR exists, I still see a category error. And even if it weren’t a category error, it seems like there’s a lot of information missing before one to arrive at conclusions with the degree of certainty needed to recite the creeds every week.

        • KG

          Also, I am fascinated by the claim that, when reciting the creeds, one may be content with viewing the miracles as “epistemically plausible” without necessarily being “believable.” Is that what you are implying? Because that seems like a very low bar, and is inconsistent with my understanding of Catholicism’s claim of authority with respect to such foundational notions.

          Or are you implying that, although this may be Leah’s situation (we cannot know until she says something about it), then in that case it is a state from which she should strive to outgrow in order to become a better Catholic?

          Or did you mean something else entirely?

  • Steve Schuler

    For my part I would be delighted if you would start blogging about your conversion. I have patiently followed your blog for over a year now in hope of gaining some understanding or insight into your conversion and what you now believe but you have rarely mentioned or alluded to Catholicism or Christianity in your blog possts or in the comments throughout that time.
    If this blog of yours is to be properly categorized as a “Catholic blog” I think that you have an obligation to blog quite a bit more on matters ‘Catholic’. My apologies for being so direct, but you have been afforded a year of grace to settle into your new identity and I think you ought to step up to the challenges that many of your readers have made in the comments over the last year.

    • LeahLibresco

      I’ll confess I don’t know exactly what you’re asking for. Looking over the front page of my blog, I’ve recently written about the rapid promotion of popes to sainthood and the ways machine learning can promote moral inquiry, both of which are Catholic topics to me.

      • Steve Schuler

        With all respect, I think that your failure to engage KG’s enquiries in this comment thread perfectly exemplifies my criticism that you have consistently ignored similar types of questions from your commentariot over the last year. While it is commendable that other Catholics, such as Martel in this thread, have stepped up to provide a Catholic perspective and response to various non-theistic respondents to your posts, I don’t think that absolves you from personally addressing the issues raised, either by personally responding in the comments or, better still, by writing blog posts that address some of these issues

        • LeahLibresco

          I don’t have enough material to be a blog post on this topic. It’s just P(miracles | Catholicism = T) > P(miracles | else). But P(any given alleged miracle outside the ones in the creed) = quite low. It makes sense to assume that pretty much everything we encounter is boring ol’ physics (just kidding, physics is lovely) since we tend to overascribe agency, neglect base rate, etc.

          • KG

            Leah, that’s very informative, thank you for posting. One obvious follow-up would be to ask exactly what evidence makes the miracles enumerated in the creeds more plausible than others, and why the tendency to over-ascribe agency etc is not as likely to apply to them. And there is still the question of how you personally came to decide that moral reasoning can tell you about what is physically possible. This last decision is a far more specific claim than the idea that Morality is something real that loves you (a very ill-defined notion), and ought to be defended by a correspondingly stronger line of evidence.

          • Ray

            I’d like to second the request for more follow up. How exactly are you going from “Catholicism has the correct moral theory” to “Catholicism is true in toto.” After all, you believe yourself to be able to recognize the truth in Catholic moral theory, while you believe yourself unable to identify genuine miracles. What excludes the possibility that Aquinas and his popularizers within the Church were likewise able to recognize the true elements in Pagan and Muslim moral philosophy, while lacking any more ability than you in identifying genuine miracles.

        • For what it’s worth, pre-conversion Leah was similarly frustrating for the Christian side.

          For example, I remember going “Argh!” about her at one time not only having no opinion on whether Jesus existed but on top of that not being interested in historical arguments on the question, because she thought herself incompetent to evaluate them.

          Basically her interests, including in lines of argumentation, have always been weird. In particular, most of the things insistent atheist commentators want defended nowadays are things where she used to agree with them, but not with the perfect faith they do.

          Of course the effective reaction to that was pitching weird arguments, because it turns out bloggers actually don’t have any obligation to cover anything in particular.

          • KG

            Indeed, there is no obligation as a blogger to cover anything in particular. But Leah is someone who takes ideas seriously, who strives to make well-supported decisions, and to teach others how to behave rationally. So for those reasons she might have some incentive to discuss the heart of the issue.

          • Only if it actually is the heart of the issue, which pretty much depends on how sure one is of what.

          • KG

            It’s the content of the creeds. That sounds pretty important to me.

          • Exactly, natural laws having no exceptions ever is the content of the creed of one particular kind of atheist, and not the kind Leah was. (I think she did believe it, but it was not the near-certain article of faith it would have to be for your attempted reductio to be a sound argument.)

          • KG

            It’s not that natural law need have no exceptions ever. That’s a strawman and I wish that were more clear by now.

            It’s that violations of the physical order ought to have exceptionally strong evidence to support them, because so many violations are possible in principle and routinely alleged to occur. And that, to the extent that we can probe it reliably, the physical order is very robust, so we must tread carefully when we think we’ve uncovered a violation.

          • Yeah well, the question is what you mean by “exceptionally strong”. How much evidence you require to overcome a presumption is basically another way of saying how sure you are of it.

            I think it’s quite obvious Leah was less sure this particular presumption than, for example, of objective morality.

          • KG

            Yes! This is entirely a question of how sure we are.

            I am asking Leah to provide information about how sure she is. You also have the sense that she is less sure about the contents of the creeds than objective morality. So I hope that Leah views your opinion as another data point indicating that she ought to pursue the matter further, given how foundational the creeds are. Catholicism’s authority rests on them, at least in part, no?

            On my end, I have enough experience with physical reality to assign a strong prior to the notion that a virgin birth can not happen, or that a person cannot rise from the dead and escape through solid rock. But then if you show it to me and allow me to study the situation in detail, then I’ll change my mind.

            This sort of evidence, derived by gathering data and inducting from it, has in my experience proven to be more reliable than believing secondhand accounts when it comes to claims of what is physically possible. I hope you see how I view this less a matter of choosing one axiom about reality out of many, and instead view it as a matter of picking a reliable “truth-telling thing” based on experience. Leah claims to have found a truth-telling thing for morality. I would like to know how she extends it to physics.

          • That’s an explanation of what the issue is on your end, but the entire point was that your end isn’t everyone else’s end.

            Also, I don’t think this is productive and am dropping out.

          • KG

            Fair enough. I just hope it’s clear that the issue isn’t entirely on my end, since Leah came from a similar (if not identical) worldview and then diverged. And other commenters than myself have noticed a lack of direct discussion from her about how her standards of evidence regarding physical reality have changed. I’m trying to understand that. I saw this post as an indication that she is willing to speak on the topic.

  • KG

    “Let me be clear: in order to be a Catholic– not just in order to be a ‘good Catholic’–it is necessary to believe (among other things) in the Apostle’s Creed, as interpreted by the Catholic Church.”

    That is indeed crystal clear, and it is what I thought before I misread your comment. So again this comes back to the manner in which Leah achieved certainty on the question of the foundational Christian miracles, and why she feels she can depart from the probabilistic/Bayesian approach to rationality that she seems to apply to most other topics.

    I continue to find it odd that, more than a year after her conversion, and after several offers she’s made to expound on it, she hasn’t addressed how she reached certainty about the foundational Christian miracles. And judging by the statements of other commenters on this thread and elsewhere, I am not alone in this feeling.

    She came closest when she wrote about Lewis’ trilemma, but I think she was careful to say that the scope of that argument is limited to those who already place a high degree of confidence in the historical veracity of all the events described in the canonical gospels. She also left a door open for those who can sift the text carefully and begin to separate likely fact from likely fiction (Reza Aslan’s new book seems to be a lively contribution along those lines). And then even if you accept Lewis’ conclusion, that Jesus is “Lord” in some general sense to be filled in, this is not as strong as saying he is the God-made-flesh part of a Holy Trinity, nor that his conception was immaculate. In fact, I think Biblical scholars are divided on whether Jesus ever made either of those claims himself, correct?

    And again, at the bottom of it all, there’s the manner in which high degrees of certainty is placed on claims that are physically implausible through the invocation of moral intuition, when we have no demonstration that this works in any instance we can actually test.

  • KG

    I hear your criticism of my tone, and I will continue to try to adjust it.

    Much of your criticism is related to statements I’ve made that follow from one key point on which I have been confused: “To accept X as true is not the same as to be certain that X.”

    The primary reason why I conflated those two ideas was an attempt to take to heart the point you made immediately beforehand regarding what it means to be a Catholic. I see I failed to understand what you really meant. You said:

    “I should also note that there is a difference between assigning a degree of plausibility to something and accepting it as true. For example, let’s say I determine the probability of the Resurrection of Christ is 0.8. As far as my beliefs go, the only options available to me are to accept it as true, or not (by rejecting it as false or by withholding judgment.) There is no such thing as partial belief.”

    So, here is how I interpreted that statement, based on my own understanding of probability: if I believe X with 0.8 probability, it would be inaccurate for me to say that I have accepted X to be true. On a scale of “true” to “false”, it falls somewhere in the middle. That would seem to make it a “partial” belief in my former interpretation of your language.

    So, I thought, to take the extra step and “accept something as true”, I would need to revise my beliefs to raise the probability to 1. And that’s why I also interpreted your quote above to imply that when it comes to the foundational miracles, one must move past a merely probabilistic assessment and into a realm of certainty. The miracles, I thought, would need to have the same degree of truth as the statement 1+1=2. And indeed, while Leah did use probabilistic language to describe miracles outside of the creeds, she never made a statement about the miracles in the creeds themselves. Based on your quote, I had inferred (incorrectly) that the probability she would assign to those particular miracles would necessarily be 1.

    If I am understanding you now (which we’ve seen is not my strong suit), you are saying that when it comes to the creeds, one must accept them as true without necessarily being certain of them, while simultaneously avoiding partial belief. I must admit I’m still confused about exactly what that means. The most precise way that I can imagine expressing an uncertain belief is through probabilities. But for the reasons outlined above, probabilities still seem like only “partial beliefs” to me … and perhaps now you can see the circle of confusion in which I’m trapped.

    Here’s another way to explain my point of view: there’s a difference between “acting as if X were true” and “accepting X to be true”. For example, suppose I estimate the probability that the miracles listed in the creeds occurred to be 0.01. I might still choose, along a Pascal’s wager line of reasoning, to partake in all the Catholic sacraments and attend mass every week in order to guard against the remote chance that I might face eternal suffering. But this leads to a problem: Each time I would be called upon to say the creeds, I would feel a certain level of incredulity. This would seem to rob the creeds of their purpose. I originally interpreted your comment about partial beliefs to indicate that I would have to revise my assessment of the probability until it reached 1. This appears to have been incorrect. However, I still do not understand how acting as if an uncertain belief were true is the same as accepting that belief to be true.

    You went on to ask me: “Now, while I acknowledge that eventually, after I re-explained the matter, you realized what I meant, why make such a statement at all? Why attribute such an obviously stupid claim to me? You write that you were “fascinated” by such an idea. Why then even suggest it as a possible interpretation of what I wrote, if it’s so apparently absurd?”

    I didn’t mean to attribute a stupid claim to you. But, as I hope the last two paragraphs have indicated, the notion of accepting something as true without being certain of it, while simultaneously avoiding partial belief, is counterintuitive enough for me to label it “fascinating.” It reminded me slightly of Leah’s post about Chesterton’s use of paradoxes: (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2011/02/i-was-born-and-bred-in-a-paradox-patch.html). I am aware that the Chesterton quote she references is within an entirely separate context from the discussion we are having. But the point is that for some intelligent Catholic authors, the simultaneous acceptance of conflicting ideas is embraced. I thought that’s the sort of statement you were making, and that’s why I said it fascinated me. But I was wrong to jump to an assumption of paradox so quickly without hashing it out further with you first.

    On my response to you regarding the use of math and logic, you said,

    “The entire point of my digression about mathematics, logic, and metaphysics was to show that since non-empirical methods are used all of the time to address the nature of physical reality, and are even required by empiricism for it to be an effective means of gaining knowledge of physical reality, it is perfectly permissible to admit non-empirical evidence to determine the plausibility of the Christian miracles.”

    It is true that we use non-empirical truths to understand physical reality, but a physical observation must enter the picture at some stage for those non-empricial approaches to have any bearing on physical reality. And perhaps at this point you might agree, and point out that the foundational Christian miracles were in fact observed. The follow-up is whether that observation is a necessary ingredient for Christina belief, or if the entirely non-empirical approaches are sufficient. For example, are the metaphysical and moral lines of argument complete enough such that that, if properly presented to someone many years before the birth of Christ, they would have no choice but to predict that his virgin birth and resurrection would occur eventually? I was trying to argue against a claim such as that, so that we could instead focus on the the existence or absence of physical evidence for the virgin birth and ressurection.

    Regarding my point about controversy in metaphysics: several times I pointed out that controversy does not preclude a correct answer. And I did move on from my point about controversy to engage in the substance of the metaphysical argument. But I raised the issue of controversy only to point out that metaphysics falls into a different category from math and logic in terms of how the human mind latches on to it, and there is a greater potential for error. And, this is a tangent, but there’s an additional reason for why I find metaphysics less useful than math or logic. With math, it is quite clear to see how it can supplement empirical findings. A differential equation, for example, may yield a solution that predicts the flight of a cannon ball traveling in an infinite number of trajectories, and any one of those predictions can be tested at any time. Such a connection between observation and prediction does not seem to exist for metaphysics, although if I am mistaken on this point I would welcome a correction.

    • LeahLibresco

      I don’t believe anything (creedal or otherwise) with P(event) = 1. But plenty of things I believe strongly, where I’d need plenty of evidence to shift my belief P(my boyfriend loves me) > P(he’s playing a strange long con).

      Sometimes I believe one thing strongly which ratchets the probability of other things up sharply (thinking that scientists are sharp and keep each other honest means I think relativity is pretty likely to be right, even though I haven’t put in the effort to examine the actual evidence).

      Thinking that objective morals (with a virtue ethics slant, and other various constraints and data) exist ratched up my P(Catholicism) to the point where I joined up. And that nudged my P(miracles of Catholicism) without picking up a post-grad degree in biblical archaeology.

      • KG

        Leah, it’s wonderful to have you in the conversation again, and in line with Martel’s observations I offer an acknowledgment that I have acted in a rude manner in past posts. I apologize for that.

        You have now clarified an important point for me: you take P(miracles in the creeds) < 1. That is useful information, and I will use it to avoid future mischaracterizations.

        This leads to two follow-up questions that you might or might not wish to address:

        1) In the context of probabilities less than 1, what does it mean for you to agree with the statement that certain teachings of the church are infallible?

        2) This is perhaps best expressed as Ray put it: "How exactly are you going from 'Catholicism has the correct moral theory' to 'Catholicism is true in toto.' ". And, it may be necessary be replace "true" here with "likely true." Through this question, I again seek your explanation for how moral reasoning reflects on the physical plausibility of the miracles listsed in the creeds.

        Note: I edited this a few times in the first few minutes of posting, but I've finished now

  • KG

    Martel, thank you again for your time and patience in your responses.

    I have reviewed the conversation, and you are right that some of my previous statements about Leah’s use of probability with respect to the creeds were factually wrong. And they were wrong not because I lacked access to information, but because I willfully misread what she wrote. I will own up to that, and offer another apology to Leah. Along those lines, I have decided not to pose any more questions to her unless I am given a direct invitation by her to do so.

    I disagree with the other instances in which you accuse me of willful misreading of what you wrote. But I will accept that the blame lies with me for failing to express myself clearly enough.

    You have provided the relevant definitions you are using for “belief”, “certainty”, and “probability”. This was a key missing ingredient for me and I am grateful for your exposition.

    I think my best course of action now is to pause, pursue your original recommendation to read the references you have suggested, and free you from the burden of dissecting long posts from me. Of course, if you have more to say to me, then I welcome it.

  • Cam

    One thing I’d like a post on, if requests are being taken, is why concerns about faulty hardware apparently don’t extend to the effects of ritual and socialization of beliefs on rationality.

    It may be that accepting core tenets of Catholicism mean that we shift our priors on the benefits of rituals, but this wouldn’t mean that the negative rationality effects no longer apply. We might calculate that the rationality costs are ‘worth it’, that they are outweighed by various benefits (like the warm fuzzies, or eternal salvation) but there’s still going to be a negative net effect on rationality. We might argue that the rationality costs are unavoidable, that a Catholic is compelled (for whatever reason) to participate in the rituals, but again, that doesn’t mean the costs don’t apply.

    So why would someone who participates in ritual still claim to wear the rationality hat? (Notwithstanding any flat denial of the negative effects of socializing our beliefs).

    I think the best defenses would have to be ‘we can correct for this’ and ‘rituals actually have a net positive effect on rationality as they open other avenues to truth’. But then I guess Yudkowsky’s argument would apply: ‘Ha’.

    • Randy Gritter

      The argument would be that rituals have a positive effect on reason. Faith in general does. Ritual is a way in which we deepen our experience of the truth we believe. Does that effect the way we think? Of course. But if truth is true then we want to accept it not just at a conscious level but also at a subconscious level. Ritual helps us do that.

      The assumption people make is that if we don’t engage in ritual then our subconscious is somehow pristine and free from bias. It just is not so. Everybody’s subconscious is full of bias. Not just by our base appetites for lust and greed and pride. But simple things like who has helped us and who has hurt us. Who’s opinion of us matters to our self esteem.

      The question is whether there is good reason to assume the church’s subconsciously instilled truths, what we call tradition, is less error prone than what we would otherwise have. if you believe liturgy is a gift of God given to the church to help her hold on to truth then the answer is obvious. If you believe liturgy is and invention of man and thus can’t be any smarter than medieval man then you arrive at a different answer.

      Yudkowsky’s argument of “Ha” seems like more of an admission of defeat rather than an argument. A pathetic piece of table pounding that is beneath him. The truth is Catholic and Jewish thinkers that were very liturgical have been able to put forward impressive rational arguments. I have no trouble calling them deeper and more profound than anything any secular thinker has come out with.