Well, everybody I know online is doing it…!

I recently recommended a book to a friend. We were online chatting in Gmail and a few moments after I endorsed the book, he replied that the book had earned “only mediocre reviews on Amazon.” I was a bit stymied. After all, I myself, his close friend of several years, had just endorsed the book to him specifically, based on a somewhat intimate knowledge of his intellectual proclivities. I added a few more reasons for the book’s worth, but he still seemed nonplussed. I don’t know if he will give the book a shot.

I mention this in order to ponder the nature of rationality. On the one hand, it is respectably rational to go by a close friend’s specific endorsement of a book, or, say, a movie or a restaurant. On the other hand, this being a largely stochastic, statistical world, it is respectably rational to heed the statistical pattern of yea’s and nay’s for the book, film, or restaurant. But which method of discernment is more rational? Isn’t my friend being irrational by ignoring my personal recommendation, specifically raised to target his known interests, in favor of a basically anonymous pool of reviewers from who knows what kind of background? Or, isn’t he being irrational by just taking my word for it and not betting more in line with “the odds” (i.e., if the average readers gives it a 6 out of 10, he’ll probably give it a 6, and that would be a waste of his money/time). He may know what “all the people on Amazon say” but he doesn’t know all the people on Amazon, so he has to add some other layer of rationality to their reviews in order to respect them in the first place. On the other hand, he knows me better than anyone on Amazon, and yet seems to complicate that “rational purity” by superimposing another layer of rationality concerning mass psychology and his own tastes as a socially formed reader.

What splits the decision in terms of ideal rationality? Personal testimony or mass appraisal?

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Development of Doctrine IV

Both here and at Sacramentum Vitae, I’ve been involved in a long-running debate about the development of doctrine with conservative scholars from each of the three major Christian traditions.  (By ‘conservative’ I mean those who believe that the “faith once given to the saints” is definitive, fully and publicly identifiable in Tradition and Scripture, and may neither be added to nor subtracted from.) Unsurprisingly, though for quite varied reasons, many of those scholars are hostile to the Second Vatican Council’s claim, in Dei Verbum (emphasis added), that the

tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

When I began writing about DD a few years ago, I believed that that a mutually fruitful understanding of DD could be reached across confessional lines on scholarly grounds alone. I now find that belief naïve. The purpose of this post is secondarily to explain why, and primarily to move the issue to the level I believe it needs to reach.

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Believing facts, seeing facts, or wanting facts?

Perhaps you have heard it said, as I have, that, in order for an argument to be logical, the arguer needs facts and proof, not just beliefs. And perhaps this seemingly obvious claim struck you as funny, as somehow off, as it strikes me. The claim is itself an attempt at a logical argument about logic, with a form, I think, like this:

Major premise: Logical arguments require demonstrable facts.

Minor premise: Beliefs are not demonstrable facts.

Conclusion: Logical arguments cannot be based on beliefs.

What primarily bothers me about this line of reasoning is that it seems to lack any factual content itself. Speaking more historically, this sort of “obvious” claim seems subject to the same flaws of old-school positivism. To wit, is it an empirical fact that “you need facts to make logical conclusions”? How can I empirically observe that statement? Or is the stricture itself just a belief about logic? Are facts, in fact, properly objects of logical construction?

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The evidence for evidence?

Consider the following axiom and two corollaries:

“A wise man [A] proportions his belief [Pa] to the evidence [Gc].”

“Corollary #1: A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”

“Corollary #2: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” [This is the (in)famous principle expounded by W. K. Clifford contra William James.]

Let us say that A is an agent, Pa is a proportionate action by A, and Gc is the grounding condition (or conditional grounds) for Pa.

Now consider the following statements:

A wise man [A] never plays the lottery [Pa] since the evidence clearly suggests he will not win [Gc].

A good husband [A] adjusts his commitment to his wife [Pa] based on the evident worth of her love [Gc].

A good friend [A] considers someone his friend [Pa] only when he is certain someone will be a great ally [Gc].

A virtuous child [A] bases his attachment to and respect for his parents [Pa] on the evidence that they will raise him well and satisfactorily provide for his success [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his immediately upcoming decision [Pa] strictly on what he has done before [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his immediately upcoming decision [Pa] strictly on what the evidence of his senses indicate he will do [Gc].

A wise man [A] bases his adherence to rationality [Pa] on the evidence that it conforms to the reality in which he is immersed [Gc].

A wise man [A] adjusts his commitment to truth [Pa] on the evidence he has for there being such a thing [Gc].

A good man [A] proportions his commitment to his ideals [Pa] to the evidence that they succeed and will be accomplished in his life [Gc].

A good soldier [A] bases his loyalty to his country [Pa] on the evidence that his country will win the conflict at hand [Gc].

I believe you will notice an analogical “soft spot” in all these claims, and, thus, in the original axiom and its corollaries: there is either a distinct circularity in the above claims (e.g., we only see rationality works in reality by rationally applying the fruits of our reasoning to the rationally ordered description of reality) or a crucial non sequitur between them and the goal they describe. After all, on what evidence might we base our assent to the above axiom? And, short of holding that axiom as an evidentially indefatigable proposition, what necessitates that we accept it on purely evidential grounds? Doesn’t it just make good sense to proportion our belief to the evidence for it? If so, however, what sense does it make to say “making good sense” is rooted in evidential certitude? And round and round we go.

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