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God is omniscient according to some religions. An omniscient being is one who knows all there is to know. This essay is about not being omniscient (thus, "not being God" in the title). Because people are not omniscient, we have to use logic to figure out things we cannot directly know or observe, and we have to use communication to let each other know what we believe and why we believe it, since we cannot look directly into each others' minds.
Presumably omniscient beings know everything somehow directly, the same way we know our own names or that we are standing up or that it is raining when we are outside in it - they don't have to sit down and figure them out; they just know everything. If, for example, we ask God what day of the week June 15, 3208 will be, God already knows that and will just be able to tell you. He won't have to make any calculations or look anything up in an almanac or a calendar that is for "the future" by our standards of time. If we ask God how long it will take to fill up a swimming pool of a certain size if there are two pipes putting water in at certain rates and one pipe allowing water to go out at a lesser rate, God won't have to get out his algebra formulas; He will just tell you. If God sits on a jury, we would not really need to present Him with any evidence; He already knows whether the person did it or not; He does not have to base His conclusion on what is presented in court; and whatever verdict He hands down will be beyond the shadow of a doubt -- for Him, at least. If we need a poem about some subject, God can just whip one out for you; He won't need to sit down and think about what to compose or how best to say it. He will already know.
But people do not have that luxury of certain knowledge about every topic, knowledge which is always immediately available. Ask most people a question that needs to be solved by calculus and they will not know the answer; they will not be able to figure out the answer; and they likely will not even know how to go about trying to figure out the answer. Ask them to multiply two fairly large numbers together and they will be able to do it, but they will either need pencil and paper or they will need some sort of calculator. They will not just immediately know the answer.
The point of mathematical calculations and the point of logical deductions and reasoning are to figure out what you do not immediately know from the knowledge that you do have -- where such knowledge is possible. Not all knowledge is derived knowledge, nor is it derivable. If you do not know what baseball player won the batting title in the American League in 1939 or who had the most hits in 1911, it will not help much to think about it, though if you know about the history of baseball, you might be able to narrow the possible field down to a number that includes the right name.
The idea of deduction is to derive the knowledge sought, when it is able to be derived at all. This is not always easy. There are two different aspects to this because there is a difference between being able to discover any given solution on your own and being able to follow it once it is given by someone else. Discovering it takes some luck and imagination and inventiveness, as well as logical understanding. But being able to understand it only requires logical ability. It is the importance of logical understanding for being ethical that I wish to discuss in this essay.
First let me give some objective problems to exemplify some points:
A logic problem: Three people are standing in a line, one behind the other, such that the last person can see both of the two people in front of him, the middle person can see only the one person in front of him, and the first person can see no one else. From a pile of five hats - - three of them white and two of them black - - which each person knows about, you place a hat on each person's head. None of them can see their own hats, but the last person can see each hat on the other two, and the middle person can see the one hat of the person in front of him. The last person in the line is asked what color hat he is wearing and he says, truthfully, he does not know. The middle person is then asked, after hearing all this, what color hat he has on, and he also truthfully says he does not know. The woman in the front then is asked what color hat she has on, and even though she cannot see any of the hats, she says she knows what color hat she has on. How does she know, and what color hat is it?
Math problem #1: Imagine there is a smooth ball the size of the earth, 24,000 miles around, and you tied a ribbon tight around the equator of the ball, then spliced in one additional yard of ribbon (36 inches) of ribbon, so there was a small loop at one point on the surface of the ball. Then imagine that you smooth out the loop so that the slack in the ribbon is spread evenly over the whole 24,000 mile surface. Will the ribbon be very far off the ground? About how high off the ground do you think it will be?
Math problem #2: To qualify for an automobile race on a particular one-mile oval track, drivers must do two laps, averaging 60 mph. On his first lap one driver has an engine problem that holds his speed down to 30 mph for that lap. How fast must he do the second lap in order to average 60 mph for the both of them?
In the logic problem with the hats, deduction is required to know how the first person in line knows what color hat she is wearing, and, if you cannot see the hats, deduction is also required to know what color hat she is wearing. However, deduction is not required to know what color hat she has on if you can look at her, as the two behind her can do. The two people behind her know what color hat she is wearing without making any deduction. They do not need to make a deduction because they can see what color hat she has on. They know directly. She, however, cannot see and cannot know directly, so if she is to know at all, it must be from making a deduction. She has to use logic or reasoning to know. In this particular problem there is sufficient information to be able to draw the correct conclusion. In real life there is not always sufficient information to be able to know that which you cannot observe directly.
The solution to the hat problem is this: if the two front people were both wearing black hats, the person in the back would know his hat was white because there were only two black hats in the pile. Since he does not know what color his hat is, both of those first two hats then cannot be black. That means either both are white or one is white and the other black. If the front one were black, the middle person would see that and, knowing that both his and the front person's hats cannot be black, would know he must then be wearing a white hat. Since he does not know what color his hat is, that means the front hat cannot be black, and must therefore be white.
The two math problems are different in this regard; they require not only logical understanding but some mathematical knowledge. In the first of the math problems, one has to know the relationship between the radius of a circle and its circumference, and one must see that the problem is about a circle's radius compared with its circumference.
The second problem requires a fairly minimal knowledge of the relationship between speed, time, and distance in order to understand the correct answer. This is knowledge that almost any driver who has ever taken any sort of trip would have. But it requires realizing one has to think about what one knows, because the initial intuitive answer will be wrong and yet will mistakenly seem to be correct.
The second of the two math problems is actually quite easy if you think about it in the correct way. Unfortunately it is not easy to notice what the correct way is. While it may seem that a speed of 90 mph will do the trick (since the average of 30 and 90 is 60), there is actually no speed that will allow the driver to average 60 mph and thus qualify for the race. Since 60 miles per hour is equal to one mile per minute, in order to qualify, one must complete both laps together in two minutes or less. But if the driver did the first mile at 30 mph, that means it took him the whole two minutes just to do the first lap. He has thus used up all the time he has for both laps in just running the first lap. He has no time left to do the second lap, so it won't matter how fast his car will now go.
The first math problem is essentially the question of how much a particular circle's radius changes when you add 36 inches to its circumference, because the difference between (1) the distance from the center of the earth to the ribbon and (2) the center of the earth to the ground, will be the height above the ground that the ribbon would be if it were supported equally high all around the globe. Since the any radius is equal to the circumference divided by two times pi, the radius from the earth's center to the ribbon will be:
(24,000 miles + 36 inches)/2pi
This is the same as:
(24,000miles/2pi) + 36 inches/2pi
But 24,000miles/2pi is the radius of the earth to begin with, so it is the distance to the ground from the center of the earth.
That leaves the ribbon to be a height of 36inches/2pi above the ground.
Since pi is a little more than 3, then 2pi is a little more than 6, which makes 36 inches divided by 2pi a little less than 6 inches.
That means the ribbon will be almost six inches off the ground all the way around.
That seems almost impossible to believe, but it is true. In fact, one can generalize the math to show that whenever you change the circumference of any circle, no matter how large or how small, by any amount, you will change the radius of that circle by a little less than 1/6 that amount. Adding (or subtracting) 36 inches to (or from) the circumference of a dime or the circumference of the universe changes the radius of either by just under 6 inches.
We have to derive this, but an omniscient being would know it, as would anyone who may have actually done a great deal of work with circles and seen the pattern that specific changes in circumference produce the exact same changes in the radius of all different sizes of circles.
Not All Logic Is Mathematical
There are a number of things we can know. We know that there must have been at least two people on base and no one out when the batter came to the plate. We know that they are playing in the Orioles' home park because the home team bats in the bottom half of each inning. We know that the Orioles were not ahead in the game and that either they then lost in nine innings, or the game is tied and is going into extra innings because if the home team is ahead when the top of the ninth inning is over, they do not bat because they will then have already won. If the game was prior to the advent of regular season inter-league play, we know that it was either a pre-season game or was a World Series game.
Notice, however, that if you were actually at the game, you could know those things without having to deduce any of them, plus you could know a great many more things that cannot be deduced, such as who the pitcher and batter were, what the price of peanuts is, how many hotdogs you ate, etc. Logic and deduction are only about knowing those kinds of things that can be derived, and generally that need to be derived because you do not know them directly.
Or you know that all emeralds are green, and that someone has bought something for you that the only thing you know about is that it is not green. You may not know what it is, but you can know it is not an emerald.
What This Has To Do With Doing Ethics
For example, whether or not to return something you have borrowed from someone may require some analysis, as when one considers the case (with slight modification) that Socrates described nearly 2500 years ago: should you return weapons you have borrowed from someone if he comes to your house extremely angry with someone about a minor altercation that has upset him beyond all reason, but he assures you that he will not use them against the person and just wants to get them back so he can go hunting in the morning? How do you decide what to do?
Or suppose the grasshopper of fable fame comes to the ants in the winter and admits he has made an error and that the ants were right, he should have been gathering and setting aside food for the winter, and he pleads that they share some of their food with him and that he will not ever give in to instant gratification again when it means future misery. What should the ants do? Why?
What is a reasonable punishment or prison sentence for a rapist?
Your daughter is going on her first date and she has overdone her makeup but feels she looks really pretty that way and she is all excited about this date. Should you say anything about her wearing too much makeup?
When is it right to break a date, if ever? Why?
Suppose you believe in the Golden Rule, that you should do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. You see a person you have not met and do not know but you are instantly attracted to them, and you want them to come over and kiss you passionately. Should you therefore go over and kiss them passionately?
Should you turn in a person wanted by the authorities for a crime you know he did not commit if you also know that the authorities are likely to convict him on a combination of prejudice and circumstantial evidence?
Should you steal medicine to save the life of a loved one if neither you nor s/he can afford it and there is plenty to go around for others who need it?
If your local public radio or tv station has a fund raiser, and they reach their financial goal without your contribution, do you still need to contribute? Why or why not?
If you are at fault in an automobile accident and cause someone to lose a kidney, should you give them one of yours if you are a compatible donor? What if they only had one good kidney before you hit them, and you caused it to fail?
These and many more issues have component elements.
Also, many positions in ethics come from comparing analogous situations for relevant similarities or differences. This requires thought and astute analysis. On one television series a parent accused a white teacher of being racist because in an integrated inner city high school she gave lower grades to black students, punished them more often, and hired white teachers while not hiring any black teachers for her department. Is this behavior racist? Was she not treating black and white students and prospective students differently in analogous situations? Why or why not?
In one particular episode the mother of a suspended black student who had spit in the teacher's face after she chastised him for not studying said her son was being unfairly punished because the same teacher did not seek suspension for a white student who had hit her in the face with an object he threw at another student, knocking her down and giving her a black eye. The white student had come forward on his own and admitted his guilt, expressing remorse that he had hit her. The black student was not remorseful for spitting in her face because he believed she had picked on him when she chastised him and therefore "humiliated" him in the class for not doing an assignment. The teacher had said the white student had hit her by accident, but the black student's mother pointed out that he had not thrown the object by accident; the throw was intentional; the only thing accidental was who was hit. Were these two student situations sufficiently analogous to make the mother's charge of racist differential treatment of students correct or reasonable? Why or why not?
Or consider the difference between the ten commandments and all the other commandments God gave Moses at Mount Sinai, according to the Bible. The first ten were put on stone tablets, but there is no mention in the Bible that all the others are any less important or somehow different in nature or insignificant. Yet many people, Jews and Christians alike, attach tremendous importance to the first ten, and often very little importance, if any, to most of the others. Is the medium on which they were communicated what makes the first ten so much more important than the others? Why would that be?
Logic, Intuition, and Direct Knowledge
Equally unfortunately, logic is not foolproof. Those who figured that in order to average 60 mph one would have to drive the second lap at 90 mph to combine it with the 30 mph of the first lap were using logic but made the error of not realizing that 30 mph and 90 mph only average 60 mph when you drive them each for the same amount of time, not for the same amount of distance.
Good paradoxes are excellent examples of problems with logic. Paradoxes are chains of reasoning that use obviously true statements with obviously valid deductions to arrive at obviously false conclusions. Since no chain of valid reasoning can yield a false conclusion from true statements, in any paradox there must be something wrong, something that needs to be resolved. Often it is very difficult to resolve a paradox, and the better ones become classics, plaguing people for generations or centuries. It is not that paradoxes show that logic itself is flawed; what paradoxes show is that reasoning which seems impeccable is not always so. Paradoxes are chains of reasoning where you know something is wrong but you do not easily know what it is. The scary lesson of the existence of paradoxes is that one could make the same sort of reasoning mistake one makes in a paradox, but have it be about something that is not as obviously erroneous - and which one cannot notice is mistaken at all.
Still, collective reasoning and communication are about the best we have to work with in making inferences and deductions about those things we cannot know directly. Even if one believes that God is omniscient and tells us which ethical principles and beliefs are right, still the history of religion shows that there are huge differences in how we understand what is meant and there are huge differences in what things different people believe are the actual messages from God.
In a simple example, Mother Angelica, who later founded the satellite cable network EWTN, was asleep one night when she woke to see what appeared to be an architectural rendering of a convent glowing brightly on the wall before her bed. She had no training in architecture. She immediately thought that either this was a sign from God to build a convent (starting with no money and no suitable land) in this design OR that she was dreaming or hallucinating in some way. She copied the diagram she was "seeing" on the wall, and she took it to an architect to see whether it was architecturally sound, thinking that if it were not architecturally sound, it was not likely a message from God to build it. The architect told her it was quite sound. She ended up being able to build the convent, then went on to build the satellite television network for the church, and then went on to other huge projects. She always had faith in God, but she knew she was prone to mistakes in understanding any particular message from God. The point is that even those who believe in God's omniscience about ethical matters still need to go through reasoning processes in order to make sure they have the message right themselves, just as Mother Angelica had to go through reasoning processes to make sure she was understanding correctly what she believed were God's plans, architectural and otherwise, for her. Religious faith does not mean the total abandonment of reason - - in ethics or anything else.
It is true that some people have more sensitivity and direct insight than others about ethical matters, and one does not have to be logical in order to have such sensitivity. But there is a difference between ethical ideas that are direct or intuitive on the one hand and those which result from reasoning on the other.
Moreover, there is a difference between putting faith in ideas which reason does not either affirm or dispute, and putting faith in principles which reason strongly implies are mistaken. So, although it is possible that someone with limited reasoning ability can be right about complex matters of ethics that involve reasoning, it seems unlikely unless what they are doing is providing insight into the specific aspects of a complex argument which is wrong in some particular detail that requires sensitivity to appreciate. In other words if a complex line of reasoning is spelled out in detail by someone who can do logic, those without the ability to do logic very well might still be able to show that one of the premises is false because they have insight into the truth of the specific direct statements -- insight which they can share. But if all they do is challenge the conclusion of a logical chain or reasoning, particularly one that is fairly complex, without being able to shed light on what is wrong with the argument, and if in general they show little or no ability to reason about any subject, then they should not have any credibility in this particular matter.
However, before simply dismissing their claims, one does need to try to see whether what they are saying can be put in a more accurate and logical way. A person wrote me one time about what he considered the illogic of his mother's not wanting him to use ATM machines at night in an urban area to withdraw money. She felt it was unsafe and she wanted him to get cash from a teller inside his bank during the daytime instead, prior to his going out for the evening. He felt she was being unreasonable because the statistics did not show there being a great risk in withdrawing money downtown at ATMs at night. I pointed out that she had not really articulated very well what was likely to be her actual concern and position in the case, which, I thought was a valid concern -- that no risk to his own life was acceptable to her given the safe way of getting the cash that only involved some prior planning on his part and perhaps a little inconvenience to him. While he was objecting to her logic based on probabilities, her argument was not about statistics, but about overall utility should the unlikely happen. It would not be any solace to him or to her that if he were mugged and killed while withdrawing money in an urban ATM at night that it had been a most unlikely event.
One has to try to understand the real argument someone not good at presenting arguments might have in mind before one can dismiss their views on grounds of faulty logic. One has to be sure not only that the logic of what they say is faulty, but that the logic of what they actually mean also is faulty.
Words and Pictures
Communication, like reasoning, would be unnecessary for omniscient beings. There is an old joke that at a convention of comedians, no one tells jokes in words but just calls out a numbers, since all the jokes are so well known that they simply have numbers for quicker reference. One fellow one time laughed for a long time after a particular number was called out, the reason being that he had not heard that joke before. At a convention of omniscient beings, even numbers would be unnecessary.
Communication, however, is not foolproof. It is, in fact, very difficult, particularly if one is trying to convey ideas or concepts that are abstract or for which there is not a ready vocabulary. There is far more opportunity for that than most people realize. Add to that the fact that misunderstanding is easy even in fairly simple cases, such as when you point to a woman in a red dress at a party as the one you are talking about, but the person with whom you are speaking sees a different woman in a red dress in the same general vicinity and does not notice the one you meant, and you do not notice the one he sees. Or when someone says "Take the next left" and means by that the first upcoming left, but you take it to mean the turn after the first one approaching; that is, the one next after this one.
It seems to be thought these days that images or pictures make communication clearer than words do -- that a picture is worth a thousand words. But that is only true in certain cases -- cases where the words are about something visual. And even then it is only true where the visual image is captured in such a way as to draw attention to the aspect of the picture that is important. Otherwise, often if someone shows you a picture, and says emphatically "Look at this!" as if he were trying to make or prove a point, one has to say, after looking at the picture, "What is it I am supposed to notice about this picture?"
Some ideas cannot be conveyed in picture form; words are the more appropriate
medium of communication. Consider these sentences, the first from Rafael
Sabatini's Scaramouche, and the second from Jane Austen's Mansfield
Park, each "painting a picture of character" in words that no picture
could actually portray:
Or consider the concepts involved in Austen's line from Persuasion:
Both cultural ethical progress and individual ethical development require not only the nurturing of logical ability but also the fostering of sensitivity and insight into emotions and concepts.(1)
There is an art to any communication and teaching that involves the
ability to paint pictures where necessary, evoke emotions where necessary,
crystallize concepts where necessary, and convey complex ideas and chains
of reasoning in words that can be understood. While being able to do all
these things will not necessarily convince other people one is right about
a particular ethical matter, not being able to do them will almost always
cause one to fail to be convincing, and in many cases, justifiably so.
1. It is also important to understand cause and effect
because one has to understand what the causes and consequences of any action
are (likely to be) in order to begin to understand whether they might have
moral significance and what that significance might be. (Return