You May Already Be A Sinner

Fol­lowup to: Si­mul­ta­neously Right and Wrong

Re­lated to: Au­gus­tine’s Para­dox of Op­ti­mal Repentance

“When they in­quire into pre­des­ti­na­tion, they are pen­e­trat­ing the sa­cred precincts of di­v­ine wis­dom. If any­one with care­free as­surance breaks into this place, he will not suc­ceed in satis­fy­ing his cu­ri­os­ity and he will en­ter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit.”

-- John Calv­in

John Calvin preached the doc­trine of pre­des­ti­na­tion: that God ir­re­versibly de­creed each man’s eter­nal fate at the mo­ment of Creation. Calv­inists sep­a­rate mankind into two groups: the elect, whom God pre­des­tined for Heaven, and the repro­bate, whom God pre­des­tined for eter­nal pun­ish­ment in Hell.

If you had the bad luck to be born a sin­ner, there is noth­ing you can do about it. You are too cor­rupted by origi­nal sin to even have the slight­est urge to seek out the true faith. Con­versely, if you were born one of the elect, you’ve got it pretty good; no mat­ter what your ac­tions on Earth, it is im­pos­si­ble for God to re­voke your birthright to eter­nal bliss.

How­ever, it is be­lieved that the elect always live pi­ous, vir­tu­ous lives full of faith and hard work. Also, the repro­bate always com­mit heinous sins like greed and sloth and com­ment­ing on anti-the­ist blogs. This isn’t what causes God to damn them. It’s just what hap­pens to them af­ter they’ve been damned: their soul has no con­nec­tion with God and so it tends in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Con­sider two Calv­inists, Aaron and Zachary, both in­ter­ested only in max­i­miz­ing his own hap­piness. Aaron thinks to him­self “Whether or not I go to Heaven has already been de­cided, re­gard­less of my ac­tions on Earth. There­fore, I might as well try to have as much fun as pos­si­ble, know­ing it won’t effect the af­ter­life ei­ther way.” He spends his days in sex, de­bauch­ery, and anti-the­ist blog com­ments.

Zachary sees Aaron and thinks “That sin­ful man is thus proven one of the repro­bate, and damned to Hell. I will avoid his fate by liv­ing a pi­ous life.” Zachary be­comes a great minister, fa­mous for his virtue, and when he dies his en­tire con­gre­ga­tion con­cludes he must have been one of the elect.

Be­fore the cut: If you were a Calv­inist, which path would you take?

Amos Tver­sky, Stan­ford psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor by day, bias-fight­ing su­per­hero by night, thinks you should live a life of sin. He bases his anal­y­sis of the is­sue on the fa­mous maxim that cor­re­la­tion is not cau­sa­tion. Your virtue dur­ing life is cor­re­lated to your eter­nal re­ward, but only be­cause they’re both cor­re­lated to a hid­den third vari­able, your sta­tus as one of the elect, which causes both.

Just to make that more con­crete: peo­ple who own more cars live longer. Why? Rich peo­ple buy more cars, and rich peo­ple have higher life ex­pec­tan­cies. Both cars and long life are caused by a hid­den third vari­able, wealth. Try­ing to in­crease your chances of get­ting into Heaven by be­ing vir­tu­ous is as fu­tile as try­ing to in­crease your life ex­pec­tancy by buy­ing an­other car.

Some peo­ple would stop there, but not Amos Tver­sky, bias-fight­ing su­per­hero. He and Ge­orge Qu­at­trone con­ducted a study that both illu­mi­nated a flaw in hu­man rea­son­ing about cau­sa­tion and demon­strated yet an­other way peo­ple can be si­mul­ta­neously right and wrong.

Sub­jects came in think­ing it was a study on car­dio­vas­cu­lar health. First, ex­per­i­menters tested their pain tol­er­ance by mak­ing them stick their hands in a bucket of freez­ing wa­ter un­til they couldn’t bear it any longer. How­ever long they kept it there was their baseline pain tol­er­ance score.

Then ex­per­i­menters de­scribed two sup­posed types of hu­man heart: Type I hearts, which work poorly and are prone to heart at­tack and will kill you at a young age, and Type II hearts, which work well and will bless you with a long life. You can tell a Type I heart from a Type II heart be­cause...and here the sub­jects split into two groups. Group A learned that peo­ple with Type II hearts, the good hearts, had higher pain tol­er­ance af­ter ex­er­cise. Group B learned that Type II hearts had lower pain tol­er­ance af­ter ex­er­cise.

Then the sub­jects ex­er­cised for a while and stuck their hands in the bucket of ice wa­ter again. Sure enough, the sub­jects who thought in­creased pain tol­er­ance meant a healthier heart kept their hands in longer. And then when the re­searchers went and asked them, they said they must have a Type II heart be­cause the ice wa­ter test went so well!

The sub­jects seem to have be­lieved on some level that keep­ing their hand in the wa­ter longer could give them a differ­ent kind of heart. Dr. Tver­sky de­clared that peo­ple have a cog­ni­tive blind spot to “hid­den vari­able” cau­sa­tion, and this ex­plains the Calv­inists who made such an effort to live vir­tu­ously.

But this study is also in­ter­est­ing as an ex­am­ple of self-de­cep­tion. One level of the mind made the (ir­ra­tional) choice to leave the hand in the ice wa­ter longer. Another level of the mind that wasn’t con­sciously aware of this choice in­ter­preted it as ev­i­dence for the Type II heart. There are two cog­ni­tive flaws here: the sub­ject’s choice to try harder on the ice wa­ter test, and his lack of re­al­iza­tion that he’d done so.

I don’t know of any liter­a­ture ex­plic­itly con­nect­ing this study to self-hand­i­cap­ping, but the sur­face similar­i­ties are strik­ing. In both, a per­son takes an ac­tion in­tended to pro­tect his self-image that will work if and only if he doesn’t re­al­ize this in­tent. In both, the ac­tion is ap­par­ently suc­cess­ful, self-image is pro­tected, and the con­scious mind re­mains un­aware of the true mo­tives.

De­spite all this, and with all due re­spect to Dr. Tver­sky I think he might be wrong about the whole pre­des­ti­na­tion is­sue. If I were a Calv­inist, I’d live a life of sin if and only if I would two-box on New­comb’s Prob­lem.