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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

On a previous occasion you replied to my recommendation to read C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, by damning him with praise. You deemed him an excellent rhetorician and storyteller, but found his theological claims to be unsupported by evidence. Let me try again. Have you heard of Catherine Galasso-Vigorito? She is a syndicated columnist in America who writes an inspirational feature called A New You, about matters of the spirit. Like Lewis she writes persuasively, but she goes out of her way to stay down to earth and provide homely examples to buttress her claims. Would you take a look and tell me what you think?

A. Theist

Dear A.,

I took a look, and I’ll give you my take. Here is a running commentary on excerpts from her column of December 14 2006, entitled ‘God has been faithful before and will be again’.

“God has been faithful before and he will be again. And I thank him, for he knows what’s best and is always on time… When God doesn’t answer our prayers when we want him to, we can be sure the waiting period is for our greater good. He is working by day and by night. We may not yet see the results, but in the time of waiting, he is preparing us for something better.”

Note the transition from something which has been true in the past to a claim that it will always be so in the future as well. There is a double leap of inference here. First is the everyday inductive assurance that past experience is a reliable guide to the future. But your society is now methodologically sophisticated enough to question that – for example, in the legal disclaimer in stock market offerings that “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But G-V goes further and asserts that some positive past experiences she has had guarantees that everything will work out for the best – presumably including all past experiences which have not yet panned out that way.

What I find intriguing about this double leap is the way it mimics sound scientific reasoning. Look it at this way: Suppose G-V’s hypothesis were that prayers – or we could say wishes – will sometimes be ‘answered’ in the future. Here there would be evidence that logically supported her conclusion, at least with some degree of probability: Since some things have gone her way in the past, so some things are likely to turn out well in the future. Now take her actual hypothesis, namely, that all prayers will be answered in the best way and at the best time. The curious thing is that the very same evidence supports that hypothesis too! But the explanation for this is that the hypothesis is not a scientific one, for no conceivable evidence could ever prove it false either. Innocent people tumbling out of exploding airplanes, genocides, world wars, children having their limbs hacked off by sadistic mercenaries – absolutely nothing could count as establishing that there won’t in due time be sufficient recompense, even if only in the Hereafter. Such an untestable manner of argument, I submit, cannot be taken seriously.

“Setbacks or delays can be an opportunity to develop our faith and our character.”

True enough. The column contains several snippets of sound advice… but any logical connection to the main thesis is obscure (to put it nicely). This is a standard tactic of anybody who is trying to sell us something, whether it be a product or an idea, or to win our vote: “It is important to have a good breakfast. [True.] Therefore buy Sugar Cereal! [Huh?]” “Children should be brought up in a secure, family environment. [True.] Therefore ban adoption by homosexuals. [Huh?]” “It is beneficial to learn how to deal with disappointments and look forward to a better day. [True.] Therefore God exists and answers all of our prayers [Huh?]”

“If we use our memory to remember our hurts and failures, let’s change it to remember the sweet and beautiful things in our life… Let us saturate our mind with faith-filled thoughts and words, declaring good things and speaking words of faith and victory over our future.”

Here the column has taken a most fascinating turn. It in effect divulges its own strategy to us: Focus only on the positive and the hopeful, and forget the rest. Again, this can be good advice. However, there is a fine line between following it and delusion. Once again a faulty inference can be cited, this time the following:

“It can be healthy and helpful to focus on the positive; therefore there is no negative.”

Let me admit to admiring Catherine Galasso-Vigorito as a persuasive and inspiring writer. I think her columns make many people feel better during difficult times; I myself am uplifted by her writing when I allow my critical scruples to subside. But as I have written before in my columns: if I must choose between happiness and rationality, I will choose the latter… unless rationality can persuade me otherwise!

As ever,


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