Friday, July 13, 2007

Making things happen

Norm Geras takes issue with AC Grayling on the motivational power of religion to do good and ill.

Grayling claims that “religion is, overall and by a large margin, a force for ill in today's world”. Norm stays agnostic on this but dislikes the way Grayling pushes his point, both in tone and in ignoring the other side of the coin: “the fact that religion has also been, and is, an influence for the good”.

I tend to agree with Norm on this, even though my judgement is that the overall balance sheet for religion isn’t good. But then he says:

there have been those who behaved with enormous courage in the face of grave danger, and those who made large sacrifices for others, and those who gave their energies to trying to make the world a better place, and those who tried to live good lives, because of their religion. The argument that they could have done such things without the religion may be true but it isn't relevant: if we are estimating what the effects of religion have been, then its beneficial effects are what they are even if they could have been obtained otherwise.

This seems to miss the point about cause and effect: if a religious individual’s act of heroism or lifetime of charitable effort would have happened even in the absence of their religion, then it isn’t a consequence of that religion. If Y would have occurred regardless of whether X had, then X didn’t cause Y.

Nonetheless, I do agree that religion can and does motivate acts both of good and of ill that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Likewise, of course. for secular/political belief systems.


anticant said...

I've never understood why some people need to believe that their benevolent actions are inspired by a Sky Pixie.

[Not to mention their vicious ones']

All part of the "it weren't me, Guv" syndrome?

Timmo said...

If Y would have occurred regardless of whether X had, then X didn’t cause Y.

Ain't true! Imagine that there were two individuals attempting to assassinate John F. Kennedy: Lee Harvey Oswald and some CIA sniper, Sniper S. Both set up on the same day, and both were committed to assassinating him. Sniper S is excellent, and never misses a shot. This time, however, S took too much time, and Oswald shot first, killing Kennedy.

According to your criterion, the following proposition is true:

Tom's Proposition: If Kennedy's death would have occurred regardless of whether Oswald fired his gun, then Oswald firing his gun did not cause Kennedy's death.

In our imagined scenario, it is true that Kennedy's death would have occurred regardless of whether Oswald fired his gun: Sniper S would have got him instead. For all that, Oswald's firing his gun is the cause of Kennedy's death!

Tom Freeman said...

Different deaths.

"Kennedy's death" is a description that could cover either event. Although at that level of non-specificity, you could make the same argument about a hypothetical Kennedy death in 1982 of heart disease.

The two deaths you're talking about differ in time and space by some (small) amount, and they differ in the immediate physical particulars (the path of the different bullets, the angle of the entry, the location and scope of the wounds), they differ in what caused them and they differ in their consequences (the personal reactions of Oswald and Sniper S at the very least).