Fake Justification

Many Chris­ti­ans who’ve stopped re­ally be­liev­ing now in­sist that they re­vere the Bible as a source of eth­i­cal ad­vice. The stan­dard athe­ist re­ply is given by Sam Har­ris: “You and I both know that it would take us five min­utes to pro­duce a book that offers a more co­her­ent and com­pas­sion­ate moral­ity than the Bible does.”1 Similarly, one may try to in­sist that the Bible is valuable as a liter­ary work. Then why not re­vere Lord of the Rings, a vastly su­pe­rior liter­ary work? And de­spite the stan­dard crit­i­cisms of Tolk­ien’s moral­ity, Lord of the Rings is at least su­pe­rior to the Bible as a source of ethics. So why don’t peo­ple wear lit­tle rings around their neck, in­stead of crosses? Even Harry Pot­ter is su­pe­rior to the Bible, both as a work of liter­ary art and as moral philos­o­phy.2

“How can you jus­tify buy­ing a $1 mil­lion gem-stud­ded lap­top,” you ask your friend, “when so many peo­ple have no lap­tops at all?” And your friend says, “But think of the em­ploy­ment that this will provide—to the lap­top maker, the lap­top maker’s ad­ver­tis­ing agency—and then they’ll buy meals and hair­cuts—it will stim­u­late the econ­omy and even­tu­ally many peo­ple will get their own lap­tops.” But it would be even more effi­cient to buy 5,000 One Lap­top Per Child lap­tops, thus pro­vid­ing em­ploy­ment to the olpc man­u­fac­tur­ers and giv­ing out lap­tops di­rectly.

I’ve touched be­fore on the failure to look for third al­ter­na­tives. But this is not re­ally mo­ti­vated stop­ping. Cal­ling it “mo­ti­vated stop­ping” would im­ply that there was a search car­ried out in the first place.

In “The Bot­tom Line,” I ob­served that only the real de­ter­mi­nants of our be­liefs can ever in­fluence our real-world ac­cu­racy. Only the real de­ter­mi­nants of our ac­tions can in­fluence our effec­tive­ness in achiev­ing our goals. Some­one who buys a mil­lion-dol­lar lap­top was re­ally think­ing, “Ooh, shiny,” and that was the one true causal his­tory of their de­ci­sion to buy a lap­top. No amount of “jus­tifi­ca­tion” can change this, un­less the jus­tifi­ca­tion is a gen­uine, newly run­ning search pro­cess that can change the con­clu­sion. Really change the con­clu­sion. Most crit­i­cism car­ried out from a sense of duty is more of a to­ken in­spec­tion than any­thing else. Free elec­tions in a one-party coun­try.

To gen­uinely jus­tify the Bible as an ob­ject of lau­da­tion by refer­ence to its liter­ary qual­ity, you would have to some­how perform a neu­tral read­ing through can­di­date books un­til you found the book of high­est liter­ary qual­ity. Renown is one rea­son­able crite­rion for gen­er­at­ing can­di­dates, so I sup­pose you could le­gi­t­i­mately end up read­ing Shake­speare, the Bible, and Gödel, Escher, Bach. (Other­wise it would be quite a co­in­ci­dence to find the Bible as a can­di­date, among a mil­lion other books.) The real difficulty is in that “neu­tral read­ing” part. Easy enough if you’re not a Chris­tian, but if you are . . .

But of course noth­ing like this hap­pened. No search ever oc­curred. Writ­ing the jus­tifi­ca­tion of “liter­ary qual­ity” above the bot­tom line of “I ♡ the Bible” is a his­tor­i­cal mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how the bot­tom line re­ally got there, like sel­l­ing cat milk as cow milk. That is just not where the bot­tom line re­ally came from. That is just not what origi­nally hap­pened to pro­duce that con­clu­sion.

If you gen­uinely sub­ject your con­clu­sion to a crit­i­cism that can po­ten­tially de-con­clude it—if the crit­i­cism gen­uinely has that power—then that does mod­ify “the real al­gorithm be­hind” your con­clu­sion. It changes the en­tan­gle­ment of your con­clu­sion over pos­si­ble wor­lds. But peo­ple over­es­ti­mate, by far, how likely they re­ally are to change their minds.

With all those open minds out there, you’d think there’d be more be­lief-up­dat­ing.

Let me guess: Yes, you ad­mit that you origi­nally de­cided you wanted to buy a mil­lion-dol­lar lap­top by think­ing, “Ooh, shiny.” Yes, you con­cede that this isn’t a de­ci­sion pro­cess con­so­nant with your stated goals. But since then, you’ve de­cided that you re­ally ought to spend your money in such fash­ion as to provide lap­tops to as many lap­to­pless wretches as pos­si­ble. And yet you just couldn’t find any more effi­cient way to do this than buy­ing a mil­lion-dol­lar di­a­mond-stud­ded lap­top—be­cause, hey, you’re giv­ing money to a lap­top store and stim­u­lat­ing the econ­omy! Can’t beat that!

My friend, I am damned sus­pi­cious of this amaz­ing co­in­ci­dence. I am damned sus­pi­cious that the best an­swer un­der this lovely, ra­tio­nal, al­tru­is­tic crite­rion X, is also the idea that just hap­pened to origi­nally pop out of the un­re­lated in­defen­si­ble pro­cess Y. If you don’t think that rol­ling dice would have been likely to pro­duce the cor­rect an­swer, then how likely is it to pop out of any other ir­ra­tional cog­ni­tion?

It’s im­prob­a­ble that you used mis­taken rea­son­ing, yet made no mis­takes.

1In Har­ris’ “Is Reli­gion Built Upon Lies?” di­alogue with An­drew Sul­li­van, http://​​www.samhar­ris.org/​​site/​​full_text/​​de­bate-with-an­drew-sul­li­van-part-two.

2If I re­ally wanted to be cruel, I would com­pare the Bible to Jac­queline Carey’s Kushiel se­ries.