Christianity Is The Schelling Point

Restoring true Christianity is both necessary and sufficient for restoring civilization. The task is neither easy nor simple but that’s what it takes. It is also our best chance of weathering the collapse if that’s too late to avoid.

Christianity is the ultimate coordination mechanism: it unites us with a higher purpose, aligns us with the laws of reality and works on all scales, from individuals to entire civilizations. Christendom took over the world and then lost it when its faith faltered. Historically and culturally, Christianity is the unique Schelling point for the West – or it would be if we could agree on which church (if any) was the true one.

Here are my arguments for true Christianity as the Schelling point. I hope to demonstrate these points in subsequent posts; for now I’ll just list them.

  • A society of saints is the most powerful human arrangement possible. It is united in purpose, ideologically stable and operates in harmony with natural law. This is true independent of scale and organization: from military hierarchy to total decentralization, from persecuted minority to total hegemony. Even democracy works among saints – that’s why it took so long to fail.
  • There is such a thing as true Christianity. I don’t know how to pinpoint it but it does exist; that holds from both secular and religious perspectives. Our task is to converge on it the best we can.
  • Don’t worry too much about the existence of God. I’m proof that you don’t need that assumption in order to believe – it helps but isn’t mandatory.

Pascal’s Wager never sat right with me. Now I know why: it’s a sucker bet. Let’s update it.

If God exists, we must believe because our souls and civilization depend on it. If He doesn’t exist, we must believe because civilization depends on it.

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Phenomenology Versus Epistemology, With a Dash Of Ontology

As I hinted yesterday, spiritual shit got real recently. I had a daydream I didn’t like and had trouble stopping it. From the secular perspective, I had a harmless daydream and am being pathologically repressive. From the Christian perspective, I had a demonic vision. It’s not the first time: I had similar daydreams around the time of my conversion – but this time the demonic aspect was unmistakable.

Phenomenologically, Christianity is so obviously true it’s hard to imagine it falling the way it has. That may partly explain why it was allowed to fall in the first place. Epistemologically, all observed phenomena must be explainable in terms of observable reality; if they are not, we have discovered a previously unknown aspect of observable reality. Either that or we took the “meta” out of metaphysics.

I suspect that most (if not all) aspects of Christian ontology are baked into the nature of reality, not unlike laws of physics. It would certainly be within God’s power to arrange things like that, and it’s consistent with his approach to better-understood aspects of reality. Demons are real, but more in the sense of depression or communicable disease than as distinct metaphysical entities.

My trust in secular epistemology is becoming as much a matter of faith as my belief in God used to be. I’m no longer confused about why I haven’t seen more serious efforts at reconciling the two.

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A Terminology Question – And a Warning

I finally figured out what I believe and it seems a bit unusual. Is there a term for this or did I come up with something novel?

I believe that theological details are knowable and subject to investigation. I also believe that the metaphysical meaning of those theological details may be unknowable. In other words, we can know what God is like, but not whether he exists. I’m unclear on what “exist” would even mean under some metaphysical interpretations. That’s almost exactly the reverse of Christian agnosticism; I haven’t found anything that would describe my position.

I also believe in the necessity of having faith in God, and it seems to work despite my metaphysical agnostisism. “Seems to” requires emphasis here: I’ve been dealing with a number of temptations and errors that the Christian tradition would describe as the work of demons. Some of them have been obvious and others subtle – and those are the ones I spotted. My insistence on epistemological clarity could end up being a dangerous blind spot. I’m not sure how to deal with that possibility yet.

So yeah. I don’t know what to make of metaphysics but I’m quite clear on the importance of proper belief and the dangers of improper belief. Don’t try this at home, folks.

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The Filioque, Metaphor Edition

Now that we have a theory, let’s take another look at the filioque. Keep in mind that we’re investigating secular consequences of beliefs, not their proper interpretation. If a belief lends itself to a particular misunderstanding, then the spread of that misunderstanding is among the consequences of the belief.

My hypothesis is that the procession of the Holy Spirit acts as a metaphor for hierarchical authority. Our beliefs about the procession would thus influence how we see authority. Let’s list the three alternatives and their implications.

  • The Orthodox emphasize that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father. This implies that authority is legitimate by default.
  • The Catholics maintain that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, with the father as the ultimate origin. This implies that authority is legitimate but subject to change.
  • The heretical reading of the filioque marks the Father and the Son as fully equal in terms of the procession. This implies equality as the default.

The hypothesis predicts that the Orthodox belief would encourage stable hierarchies, the filioque egalitarianism, with the Catholic doctrine somewhere in between. The magnitude of the effect would depend on the strength and salience of the belief. The cultural impact may be amplified over long timescales due to feedback loops.

Humans seem to have a penchant for upending hierarchies when we can get away with it so a bias toward stability seems like a good idea. It’s worth noting that the original sin involved a reversal of the natural hierarchy: Eve took advice from a snake and Adam listened to his wife over God.

Lay misunderstandings are inevitable given the subtleties of Christian theology so we’d like central teachings to err in the direction of corrigibility when possible. The filioque seems to fail at this: its absence would inspire undue deference, its presence defiance. It’s clear enough which one inclines toward listening to correction.

The filioque would bias the masses toward egalitarianism and the Catholic doctrine may have been too subtle to correct for that. The bias would be amplified as communications improved and the Church lost its monopoly on information. Egalitarian ideas would proliferate and each iteration would pave way for the next. The changes would undermine the perceived legitimacy of authority, further weakening the Church’s already tenuous hold on culture.

Given its centrality to the faith, the influence of the filioque would be pervasive throughout Western Christianity. Popular revolts, the Reformation and individualism all bear the marks of the egalitarian impulse. I don’t have an estimate on the magnitude of the effect so I can’t claim the filioque was decisive, but it would have helped things along.

To summarize, I have a hypothesis about the cultural consequences of the filioque based on an unarticulated intuition and a conjectured mechanism of action, supported by a superficial match with historical patterns. That’s pretty circumstantial but enough to justify further investigation given the potential significance. An obvious followup would be to look in detail at the interplay of theology and culture in various Protestant sects. The hypothesis predicts that egalitarian theological changes would give rise to more extreme egalitarianism in the culture. Further, less egalitarian theology would limit the spread of egalitarian ideas.

My cursory attempts at followup have run into a not unexpected snag: I haven’t found sufficiently detailed summaries of the Trinitarian processions of the relevant sects. It’s almost as if people didn’t consider it important.

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The Lens Of The Mind’s Eye

Did you know there’s an entire literature exploring the cognitive role of metaphor? Seems like it may be quite central to human thought. That’s good for my theory: it kind of hinges on the assumption.

I think religious beliefs act as a cognitive filter, biasing us toward ideas and interpretations that fit with them. This is based on the observation that theological change seems to give rise to metaphorically similar cultural changes over time. That kind of influence would require a causal pathway of some sort. If our thinking is largely based on metaphor, that would be the pathway – and it’s a direct one. If so, we can use metaphorical thinking to reason about cultural consequences of religious belief. It sounds odd but the logic holds: If causality runs through metaphor, then it’s necessary to identify and examine the metaphor to understand the causality.

An obvious objection would be that causality could run the other way: other beliefs give rise to appropriate religious metaphors. This would hold to some extent – it is easier to accept metaphysical claims that fit with our worldview. I contend that it goes both ways. For example, atheism is more likely to spread when secular knowledge seems sufficient to explain all of existence – but as it does, its metaphors start manifesting in other ways. “There is no God” has many connotations and not all of them are good.

Predicting the future is always difficult. There are too many variables and degrees of freedom. I don’t expect my theory to be up to that – not yet, at least. It can, however, be used to examine the past. I’ll get on that next: there’s a puzzle I’ve been itching to solve.

 

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The Filioque, Reformation Edition

I keep coming back to the filioque. Might as well try and make sense of it.

The Catholic position is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and that the procession from the Father is prior. The distinction is subtle but it’s there – and denying it would be heresy. The disagreement between the Orthodox and Catholic views could be seen as a matter of emphasis.

The presence of the filioque in the creed does lend itself to a heretical interpretation on a naive reading but so would its absence. A full theological exposition would be rather wordy so some tradeoff must be made. How much does it matter?

Enter the Reformation.

Many Protestants took the freedom from Catholic authority as a license to interpret theology for themselves, Luther’s intent notwithstanding. They also kept the filioque. The Biblical evidence for the structure of the Trinity can be rather subtle and the filioque is anything but so conditions were ripe for heresy. As such, we’d expect Protestant sects to err in the direction of conflating the processions.

This may be a case of picking your poison. The Reformation without the filioque could well have produced a pattern of denying the divinity of Christ instead.

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We Have Principles

I keep getting in my own way when I try to explain too much at once. Let’s lay some groundwork and see if it comes in handy later.

We live in a world that runs according to knowable principles and laws. We have a good understanding of some of them and a poorer understanding of others. Physics is at the well-understood end of the scale, matters of human life and society tend toward the poorly-understood end. I’ll refer to the totality of the principles and laws governing human existence as “the Principles”. It’s not perfect but it’ll do for now.

The Principles are implicit in human nature and the structure of the universe, not unlike mathematics and physics. Given the observable nature of the world, they should be discoverable in principle. The complexity seems daunting but other things have seemed impossible until they weren’t.

Seen from the inside, the causality of the Principles runs through us. We are free to choose our beliefs, attitudes and actions, but not their outcomes. Once a choice is made, its consequences will play out according to the Principles, until another choice intervenes. Every choice matters but it’s never too late to improve.

Even with full knowledge of the Principles, it would be prohibitively complex to try and reason out the exact implications of individual choices. However, the Principles may imply sets of behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that tend to produce good outcomes, both individually and in aggregate. With perfect knowledge, it would be possible to come up with an optimal set in terms of comprehensibility and outcome.

The existence of the Principles is axiomatic given that we live in a lawful universe. Their origin is a matter of metaphysics but their details are an empirical matter, if one beyond our present reach.

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How To Epistemology

My reasoning will be easier to follow with a basic understanding of my approach to truth and knowledge. Let’s take a look.

Reality is deeply interconnected so all truth is connected. This is most apparent in physics and mathematics but it holds everywhere. To the extent religion is a good guide to living in the world, it holds for religious belief. To the extent metaphysics is relevant for the purpose, it holds for metaphysical belief. If religion contains deeper truths about reality, it will hold for those.

There is such a thing as a free-floating belief: a belief that is not connected to the network of truth. Such a belief would be purely ornamental, not relevant to anything but itself. A true belief can be functionally free-floating if its implications are never examined. My central hypothesis can be expressed like this: Properly understood, belief in God is not free-floating. Our knowledge of him is connected to all other knowledge and that connection can be studied.

Belief in something is distinct from just thinking that you believe it. If we think we believe in semiconductor physics, we can talk about band gaps, perform some ritual experiments and bask in the adulation of our peers. If we actually believe, we can build transistor radios and eventually develop computers.

I take my beliefs seriously. When I learn something new, I reflexively cross-check it against my prior knowledge, draw connections and note discrepancies. The better it fits with the rest of my understanding, the more I believe it. If there are discrepancies there’s a mistake somewhere. Either the new information is false or I need to reexamine my assumptions; major updates can happen if the evidence is compelling enough. That’s why my posts made less sense around the time of my conversion – I was re-evaluating my basic assumptions about reality and my mind was running on pure pattern recognition for a while.

Turns out my secular understanding was fine: the world runs on knowable law up to the limits of my knowledge. The pattern at the boundary is interesting. There are plenty of hooks in the Bible to connect it to the secular reality but they are mostly left dangling – at least in the mainstream. The situation might be better within the churches but I’d expect to see more evidence of that. For now I assume that they, too, have retreated from the empirical. Christianity is meant to be connected with reality but it’s mostly treated as free-floating. We used to take religion more seriously. What happened?

I think the problem started with the scientific revolution. When science contradicted our understanding of Genesis, our collective faith was tested – and we failed the test. After the initial shock and reinterpretation, we should have mounted an urgent effort to test our understanding further. What else did we get wrong? What does the Revelation really mean? Instead, we retreated to unfalsifiability.

That was a mistake.

If we treat our sacred truth like a fairytale, we shouldn’t be surprised if it starts acting like one.

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Ignorance Shields From Error

In matters of faith, I expect a simple truth to be better than a sophisticated error. If so, we can draw some inferences on the patterns we should see if a church is in error.

If a church is careful but not infallible in its doctrine, we expect it to get basic matters right. If an error does creep in, it will be subtle and hard to spot, possibly embedded in a complicated detail of advanced theology. Lay members would only learn the basic doctrine and never hear the error. They would have the benefit of simple faith, while the priests and theologians would be the ones plagued by error. The subtler the error, the more advanced knowledge would be required to learn it.

If a church is careless, or flawed in its foundation, even basic doctrine could contain error. Then laity and clergy alike would suffer from it.

If we can identify the consequences of error, we can infer its location by looking at the pattern. If all suffer equally, even basic doctrine is in error. If only clergy suffer, the error is more subtle. If only the highest-ranking clergy suffer, the error is so subtle that most priests don’t learn it. The greater the variation within rank, the less central the error is to church teachings. If the laity suffer and the priests don’t, then the doctrine may be sound but it’s being taught in a misleading way.

This also suggests that unsupervised study of theology could be hazardous. If you take error as truth, or misunderstand a truth, you will be in error until corrected. For most, simple faith is the safer path.

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Grand Theory, First Draft

I have doubts – as I should: lone geniuses with grand theories have a spotty track record. We get the occasional Einstein but we also get the Time Cube guy. I think I’m on to something but it’s not easy to tell from the inside. Let’s see what I’ve got so far.

I’m working on the hypothesis that religious beliefs have secular consequences – and that the metaphysical details of the beliefs matter for those consequences. The first part is straightforward: people tend to conform their behaviors to their religious beliefs and the behaviors influence their outcomes. When widely adopted, they influence the trajectories of communities, societies and even civilizations. As a trivial example, a group that believes in having lots of children tends to grow over time, while a group that comes to believe in having no children dies out in a generation.

The second part is trickier. As a rough sketch, theological details would have implications for doctrinal interpretation. Some of the doctrine would be relevant to moral beliefs, and those beliefs would affect behavior. The behavior, in turn, would have an impact on outcomes like family formation and birthrates, to continue with the fertility example. We observe that the secularized West does, in fact, have a fertility problem.

The hypothesis seems broadly consistent with the historical pattern but I haven’t made progress in demonstrating how doctrine would have been a deciding factor. It’s easy enough to point to the Reformation as a major destabilizing event, much harder to show how the causality would run through theology specifically. I do note that if theology indeed is a major component of the machinery of civilization, then sola scriptura amounts to handing monkey wrenches to amateurs. If doctrine matters, the proliferation of Protestant sects is a clear indication that something went wrong.

This task is consistent with my Christian faith. God’s truth is the perfect guide to live by. If our understanding of truth leads us astray, then we have misunderstood. If there is a way to test our beliefs against the world, we should welcome that: error will fall and truth will stand. Given how much error there is in the world, I think we all stand to benefit from such testing.

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