Monday, December 31, 2007

Reasoning by analogy

Reasoning by analogy is always dangerous. Heinlein gives an amusing example in Starship Troopers:
"It doesn't matter whether it's a thousand - or just one, sir. You fight."

"Aha! The number of prisoners is irrelevant. Good. Now prove your answer."

I was stuck. I knew it was the right answer. But I didn't know why. He kept hounding me. "Speak up, Mr. Rico. This is an exact science. You made a mathematical statement; you must give proof. Someone may claim that you have asserted, by analogy, that one potato is worth the same price, no more, no less, as one thousand potatoes. No?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not? Prove it."

"Men are not potatoes."
(Heinlein is bullshitting us here: Mr. Rico does not actually prove his assertion, he merely rebuts a fallacious counterargument; to construe the rebuttal as a proof is the fallacy fallacy.) But Heinlein does have a point: analogy, metaphor, simile, allegory and other such literary devices can be useful to explain an idea, but they are never useful for proving a point or describing an idea precisely.

Norm Doering and Stephen Law comment on English Bishop Richard Harries' recent article It is possible to be moral without God. I want to note Harries' reliance on two fallacious arguments from analogy.

Harries asks, "How far are we living on moral capital?" The analogy is absurd. In what sense could morality possibly be related to economic capital? Morality is not in any sense at all like equipment in a factory or even money in the bank. We don't use anything up by acting in moral ways, no matter how you construe morality. We really must suspect that Harries is unable, unwilling or just too lazy to give any thought to the actual substance of his remarks.

Harries likens religion to the symphony from which morality is extracted as individual passages:
Take an analogy: someone hears a great piece of music and responds to it in itself. But someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place. As human beings we can recognise and respond to particular moral insights. But a religious believer claims to understand these as part of a much larger whole in which they have a vital place: in particular, there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within.
A nice analogy. But is it apt? Is it accurate? Note that Harries does not actually assert that the religious believer understands morality better by putting it in a larger, religious context.

Perhaps most importantly, are our modern moral beliefs even a part of the religion in the first place? It is definitely the case that any citizen of a Western democracy who took the moral assertions of the Christian Bible both seriously and literally would — depending on which he followed first — starve, be imprisoned, or be committed to an insane asylum. Very few modern moral notions — democracy, pluralism, the prohibition of slavery and rape, equal rights for women — can be extracted directly from the Bible, and the Bible enthusiastically supports any number of notions we find today to be atrocious: murder, slavery, rape, human sacrifice, wars of aggression, incest, infanticide... the list goes on and on. One might assert that one can best understand a Bach Cantata in the context of a John Cage symphony.

There is one moral category, however, that necessarily fails by putting morality into a religious context, even the mostly vacuous context of a perfectly good God willing "to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within." The moral values of freedom and liberty for themselves, as a final and not just instrumental good, cannot survive God, especially an intervening God. To contextualize morality in this sense makes obedience the highest meta-value, as a final, and not just instrumental good. What is this "all good" God trying to redeem us from? The original sin of disobedience, of course.

The question isn't whether it's possible to be good without God: the question is whether it's possible to be good with God. The best that we can say is that the socially acceptable behavior of a billion Christians shows that it's possible to be good despite God, or at least despite Christian scripture.


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