Friday, June 03, 2011

Solipsism and Gratitude

Heather MacDonald has a post at "Secular Right" on what she calls the solipsism of faith:

Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves. If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors? (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.) The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims. Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness.

I think this response gets both the implications and the psychology quite wrong. There is no particular a priori reason why God would do exactly the same thing for everybody, and it doesn't follow from thanking God for saving one from calamity either that God did nothing for the unfortunate neighbors or that God cared for the fortunate person more -- indeed, as old-fashioned Baptist preachers are sometimes fond of reminding their congregations, it could very well have been the exact opposite: as one preacher I know put it (I paraphrase), God may have saved you rather than them because you need more time and help to escape from hell than they do. Only the good die young, as the saying goes! MacDonald's 'inescapable implication', far from being inescapable, isn't really even implied without making a number of obviously debatable assumptions. MacDonald's implication, in other words, is really based on her own idea of What God Would Do, and the assumption that everyone else has this idea, too; a problematic assumption given that MacDonald is an atheist with a long history of not exactly having a complete sympathy with theists.

But, more importantly, I think she is clearly misreading the psychology of the situation. It is a natural human response, on having survived a great catastrophe, to feel grateful for it. And it's important to note that this is true regardless of whether one has anyone to whom one can be grateful. Martin Gardner has an excellent and underappreciated philosophical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, in which this is a secondary theme: gratitude is a very human response, even in situations where there is no human agent responsible; it's a common, although not universal, accompaniment of relief. If you're a theist, you'll feel grateful to God, as the most obvious higher-order agent to whom it could be attributed; if you're an atheist or agnostic (or perhaps a deist who doesn't believe God intervenes, as Gardner was), it might just be a strange sense of gratitude to no one in particular. And it does seem strange to be grateful yet to no one in particular, but there's nothing irrational about it, because gratitude is the human response in which we feel more than merely relieved, and this can be appropriate whether one has anyone to be grateful to or not. The feeling comes first, and sometimes demands expression.

People in general, however religious, tend to be rather agnostic about what they can know about God's purposes; that doesn't change the fact that they feel grateful to have survived, nor does it change the fact that the force of relief can demand that this gratitude be expressed. And the associated feelings don't have any particular connection with each other: you can be grateful for having survived while sad for those who didn't; you can be grateful for emerging unscathed even while bewildered as to why others didn't; you can be grateful for having lived even while anguished that others didn't; you can be grateful and relieved that you got through and feel bad for feeling grateful and relieved. The two sides simply come apart because they have no necessary connection.

Thus there's no particular reason why one should feel compelled to explain the difference -- one might try, in order to satisfy one's curiosity, or in order to relieve one's anguish or guilt, but there's nothing that positively demands that one do so. It's entirely possible just not to know, and even to believe that one can't know; the motivation for expressing a thank-God will still be there, utterly unaffected by one's agnosticism about God's mysterious ways. This is not the solipsism of faith or of anything else; it's simply a case where motivation does not depend on what one knows or what one doesn't, and where (what is more) the rationality of the motivation doesn't depend on what one knows or what one doesn't.


  1. Ms. MacDonald may have ideas about what God should have or should not have done, but these expectations are not groundless.  They are based on what we'd expect another intelligent entity to do when in the position to act.  If we're going to say that God had a hand in some natural disaster, then I can very reasonably ask why He acted in this way and not that.  If we are going to embed God into our explanations of worldly events, then He's going to have to be embedded in an intelligible way.  To me the only alternative is just to throw our hands up and say "It's all His will" - a position that will push theism pretty close to deism.  That's okay by me, but will not likely satisfy a theist.

  2. branemrys8:07 PM

    In fact, it is not so clear. You and I regularly pick and choose who we will help, and (I presume) you would count us as intelligent entities. All the intelligent entities we know (1) prioritize who they should help on the basis of general goals and values; (2) make distinctions in what ways they should help and in what ways they should not; (3) take into account differences in the circumstances of different people we could help, e.g., how much they need it all things considered;  (4) sometimes refuse to help when in the position to do so due to assessments of other people's rights; and (5) do things on whim, including charitable things. Trying to make it a simple situation, as you are suggesting, would require simplifying assumptions so massive we can pretty much guarantee that at least some of them are wildly false; and thus it all leaves us nowhere.

    In any case, it's absurd to talk about what 'we' would expect of an intelligent entity. Obviously in this case people aren't expecting it, so who this 'we' is supposed to be is utterly mysterious, and the discrepancy between the expectations of this 'we' and the many, many, many people (almost certainly many more people than those who share the expectations of this mysterious 'we', since many more people express thanks to God than criticize such expressions along MacDonald's lines) who obviously are expecting different things needs to be explained.

    Precisely part of my point is that people aren't "embedding God into our explanations of worldly events"; this is one of the mistakes MacDonald is making. People generally are theists for reasons independent of the events for which they are expressing gratitude; and their gratitude has nothing to do with explanation, as I tried to make clear in the post, but apparently failed. They aren't explaining the event; usually they are agnostic as to the precise character of how the event might be explained. Rather, being grateful for the outcome, they simply express it with respect to the most relevant agent they believe to exist.

    Thus I still conclude that MacDonald's expectations are groundless, that her criticism is based on a complete misunderstanding of both the rational implications and the psychological motivations of the acts she is criticizing; and, what is more, I think your attempt to defend her merely brings out more clearly just how utterly off base she is.

  3. branemrys8:26 PM

    A further point, I think, brings out just how massive the assumptions MacDonald must make. Everything I say above applies more or less across the board (there are exceptions to the embedding explanations point, but I would suggest that they are relatively rare) -- they apply to any sort of theist, including, e.g., polytheists. But most people are monotheists who believe that God is omniscient. This throws a wrench in the works, however. With the intelligent agents we know most closely -- human beings -- we don't have to deal with omniscience. Indeed, we can assume limited knowledge, and our expectations with regard to what a human being would do, or what a decent human being would do, take into account what is typically salient to a human agent of limited knowledge, what a human agent could be expected to know, and the like. But all these things fall away for omniscience: for omniscience everything's salient, and therefore anything that could possibly be relevant has to be taken into account. In the typical monotheistic situation, then, MacDonald's expectation basically amounts to the claim that nothing in the entire universe, past, present, or future, could possibly present a set of reasons for treating A and B differently.

    This, however, is something that MacDonald does not know. And if she does claim to know it, my own expectation is that she should be able to prove it -- that nothing whatsoever in all of the universe, past, present, and future, including everything that human beings don't know but an omniscient agent by definition would, could be a reason for saving A and not saving B.

    (This is why those people who, when pressed, express agnosticism about the reasons why they were saved and others not, are being entirely reasonable. For all they know it could be random, or could be due to something that their great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will end up doing if they survive, or infinitely many other things. And since speculating over infinite possibilities is futile speculation, the proper response is a shrug of the shoulders. Answers that could potentially require knowing everything in the universe are answers out of reach. But again, people don't express thanks in order to explain things; this gets the order of things entirely wrong.)


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