Rob Wheeler continues to think about Misfortune (part 2)

This is a rejoinder to Smitch's response to my previous posting. I am publishing as a separate piece owing to its length.


If I understand your previous posting correctly, Smitch, you are saying that you want to make a distinction between those incidents that happen accidentally and those that happen by design. The former should strictly speaking be called 'misfortunes' while the latter should be called 'crimes', or perhaps 'malicious acts' if they do not break the law as such. It seems you think that while a person could be the unconscious victim of a crime (or malicious act) it makes no sense to describe someone as 'suffering' a misfortune (an accidental outcome) of which they are unaware.

In the case I gave in my precious posting, about the man failing to get the job, it is clear that he was victim of a deliberate act and not an accident. In practice I think people frequently use the term 'misfortune' to cover both accidental and intentional 'bad things' happening to them. It would make perfect sense to say "we had the misfortune of being burgled three times last year" even tho burglaries are not accidental. However, I accept that this is a loose use of the term 'misfortune' and you are right to draw attention to the distinction for, when I think about it, all the cases I have been considering so far involve someone being the victim of someone else's unjust or criminal actions. The challenge, therefore, is to see if we can describe a situation in which an accident, unknown to the subject, can be described as a 'bad thing' for that person even if the subject does not consciously suffer pain or distress.

Consider the following scenario:

Old Mrs Jones has only one living relative, her son Alan, who rarely visits his mother. Luckily Mrs Jones has a really caring neighbour, Mary Smith, who is always popping in to help her. Mrs Jones appreciates Mary's generosity and care and is very sad at how it contrasts with her neglectful son's attitude. Unknown to Mary, Mrs Jones has considerable savings and has decided to leave all of her assets to Mary instead of to her worthless son. She therefore makes a new will which she promptly files away in a drawer and forgets to tell anyone about.

When Mrs Jones dies, her son is called in to clear the house. He finds the will and, realising that he is going to be cut out, he destroys it. As it is the only copy and no one else knows about it, Mrs Jones is declared intestate and, as next of kin, Alan inherits all of old Mrs Jones' assets.

Now, from what you said in your previous response, I think you would agree that a crime has been committed. Alan has certainly broken the law and should he be found out he will undoubtedly be prosecuted. But the reason that destroying a will is made illegal in the first place is because it does a harm to someone: it perpetrates an injustice upon them. Mary has been deprived of something that she would have enjoyed had Alan not acted in the way he did. The fact that Mary was unaware of the injustice and 'feels' nothing is neither here nor there. She may not experience the injustice but that does not alter the fact that an injustice has been committed. I would also want to say that an injustice, a harm, has been done to Mrs Jones -- and there is no way she can experience it as she does not even exist any more!.

Now imagine a second version of this scenario where Alan does not find the will. It just gets lost in the general clearing out. In this scenario Alan may have believed that his mother had written a will and he makes every effort to find it. His aim is to faithfully carry out his mother's intentions but unfortunately the will is never discovered. As in the first scenario, Alan inherits and Mary gets nothing. However, in this case it is not intentional. No crime has been committed. It is just an accident. I would argue that Mary's failing to receive the benefit she would otherwise have received is a 'misfortune'.

If we believe that failure of the will to be carried out was a 'bad thing' in the first scenario then it must surely be a 'bad thing' in the second too, even tho it was unintentional. Can a distinction be made between the two?

In the first scenario, the intentionality of the offence could be said to be bad in itself. It is surely unpleasant to think that you might be the subject of someone's malice but it can hardly be judged as very bad if that person fails in their intention. If Alan had torn up the will but unbeknown to him there was a duplicate with a solicitor, no harm would have been done. If it were later discovered that Alan had destroyed the first copy of the will, he could perhaps be prosecuted for some sort of conspiracy to defraud but his punishment would be nothing like as severe as if he actually succeeded in his plan. We make things illegal on the basis of both the intention and the outcome. In this case the 'bad thing' that happens is that Mary has been deprived of a benefit she would otherwise have enjoyed not merely Alan's conspiracy against her, whether on not it is successful.

If you think that Mary's accidental loss of the benefit of the will cannot be described as a 'bad thing', ie, it doesn't matter, then it is difficult to see why you would be worried about Alan's deliberately defrauding Mary of what is rightfully hers. As long as she doesn't know about it, surely no harm has been done -- for, as you seem to be arguing, a harm must be experienced to amount to a harm. And, as we have already seen, the mere attempt to defraud, does not amount to much of a harm in itself.

I think one of your worries is that I appear to be making a claim to some sort of 'objectivity' regarding the harm done to Mary and you baulk against this. When Alan tears up the will it is obviously an objective fact that he has broken the law. Whether anyone is aware of his action at the time is neither here nor there. It does not become an illegal act simply at the moment it is reported to the police. It was always illegal from the moment of commission. In the case of the accidental loss of the will I am not suggesting that there is an 'omniscient narrator' perspective from which the loss of the will is objectively a 'bad thing'. Rather, I am putting myself in Mary's place and asking what her response would have been had she known about the loss. I imagine asking her, in advance and hypothetically, what she would feel if old Mrs Jones were rich and she had left everything to Mary and then the will was lost. I also imagine what Mary would feel if she finds out years later, perhaps on her deathbed, that she has lost out on inheriting a fortune. The judgement that Mary has suffered misfortune is not made from an objective point of view but from Mary's hypothetical viewpoint.

Of course, you are not necessarily compelled to judge that Mary has suffered a misfortune in this or any other case. Other factors in the scenario may lead you to a different conclusion when you consider them. In each case, however, you are to put yourself in Mary's position and ask what she would have thought and felt had she known the facts. For instance, following old Mrs Jones' death and the accidental loss of the will, Mary marries a very wealthy man such that the money left in the will would be paltry beside her husband's wealth. In this case we imagine Mary, in later life, coming to learn about the lost will and judging that the loss does not matter as she is wealthy in her own right and does not need the money. She may be touched to know that Mrs Jones left her the money, as it shows how much she was appreciated; she may feel sad that Mrs Jones' will was frustrated; she may feel annoyed that the worthless son inherited Mrs Jones' savings, which was against Mrs Jones' intentions; but she will not feel personal loss or a sense of misfortune because she did not need the money as it turned out. A judgement of misfortune is always a hypothetical judgement from the perspective of the subject but may nonetheless be valid even though it is hypothetical.

The other thing that seems to concern you is that if we accept the premise that it is possible to suffer a misfortune without being aware of it, then we will all start ruminating on imagined losses and become very anxious and dissatisfied in our lives. However, I don't think this follows at all. It's one thing to acknowledge the possibility of unexperienced misfortune and quite another to decide how you will deal with such a possibility. I agree with your implied position that it would be absurd to worry about 'bad things' happening to me of which I am, and may always be, unaware, but that does not change the fact that such things can happen.

Rob Wheeler

Rob Wheeler thinks about... Misfortune

Is it possible to suffer a misfortune or a harm of which we are completely unaware? At first sight the idea seem ridiculous. It's like someone telling you they have just discovered that yesterday they had been suffering a toothache all day but were quite unaware of it at the time!

Consider the following situation, however...

John is universally judged to be a competent manager. A new project is mooted by higher management and "water-cooler" conversations lead to the informal proposal that John should be earmarked to lead the project. It will mean a higher salary for him, more responsibility, higher status and greater job satisfaction. Everyone agrees that he is the right man for the job and that he would enjoy the challenge. However, Alan has it in for John and fabricates evidence that John has had mental problems in the past. The management simply accept what Alan says on face value and quietly drop the idea of promoting John to project leader. Years later, after all the characters in our drama have passed away, John's biographer comes across evidence of Alan's deceit. He judges that what Alan did indeed harm John and writes in his biography that John's career was blighted by the malice of Alan.

The biographer's judgement seems to me to be quite correct. Had Alan not acted in the way that he did John would have experienced a benefit that, in the event, he was denied. Alan has clearly done John a harm. But the problem is that this contradicts our previous intuition for John has not experienced anything disagreeable.

Many people balk at the idea that a third-party's judgement (such as the biographer's) can override or somehow negate the subjective judgement of the person themselves. After all, what right have I got to gainsay your claim that you are happy? Surely you are the ultimate authority on your own happiness? However, if we insist that a misfortune is only a misfortune if you experience it then we have to conclude that Alan has done John no harm. Furthermore, any betrayal, gossip, infidelity or theft that remains undiscovered is never wrong in itself. It only becomes wrong when it is discovered and the resultant distress is experienced; what renders something wrong is only consequent bad experiences.

This would put a colleague who learnt about Alan's deceit in a paradoxical position. If he informs John about the loss of the job opportunity, John will feel anger and disappointment and so the colleague automatically will come to share responsibility with Alan for causing a harm to John! Without his action John will not have suffered anger and disappointment. This clearly goes against our common-sense beliefs about harms for we usually praise people who bring injustices to light - not blame them for causing distress - even though their actions may lead to the experience of distress. If John discovers the wrong done to him by Alan through his colleague's information then the distress he experiences will be as a result of what Alan did - not as a result of his colleague bringing it to light. The colleague cannot share the blame of the harm just for making John aware of it. In addition, the law does not treat the wrongness of a crime as consisting in the distressing awareness of it. If a fraud was committed two months ago it was wrong then - not just when I discover and report it.

I think the problem of our contradictory intuitions lies in what appears to be a conflict between two opposing viewpoints. On the one hand we have the first-person viewpoint of John ("I am happy and contented") and the third-person viewpoint of the biographer ("John has suffered and so is unhappy"). It seems illegitimate for someone to make such a judgement in the face of an authoritative judgement made by a person about their own state of mind.

The answer is that the third-person perspective is bit more subtle than I have described it. The biographer is not really saying "I judge John to have suffered a misfortune". Rather, he is putting himself in John's place, empathetically, and saying "If John had known about Alan's action then I judge he would have been distressed because he would recognise that an objective harm had been done to him. Therefore, he has suffered a misfortune even though he did not discover the deceit and experienced the distress".

The implication of this is that our individual lives cannot be seen and evaluated simply in terms of our here and now subjectivity - the flow of conscious experiences - but have to be viewed as stories in an objective world in which the third-person perspective is as important as the first.

David Paterson thinks about - Revelation

Since the dawn of consciousness (whenever that was) humans have been exploring their experiences and forming constructs which enable them to perceive, use and predict things better. From that point of view revelation is a constant function of humanity, especially of certain gifted and dedicated individuals.

I think that in "exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation" (which is the Sea of Faith mission statement) we are valuing a wide variety of revelations. However, we also need to acknowledge that no revelation is privileged. All have to be checked for their truth, relevance and appropriateness. I think it's important that none should be discarded. Modernity is not privileged either.

We may at any time need to revisit ancient insights to get out of the mess we continually get ourselves into.

The great traditions of revelation -- of the Tao, off Krishna and Advaita Vedanta, of the Buddha, of the Old Testament prophets, of the story of Jesus, of the Qur'an, the Guru Granth Sahib, Baha'ullah an many others -- are there to be valued, assessed and reviewed for all humanity and for all time.

Rob Wheeler thinks about... Metaphors

Theologians often claim that the nature of God is so far beyond our understanding that he must be completely unknowable to our finite, mortal minds. We must therefore approach describing him indirectly through metaphor, symbols and figures of speech. These are applied to God as rough and ready approximations. The best we can do is point to his unknowable nature using inevitably inadequate comparisons with what we do know.

A metaphor is a way of explaining or illuminating something unfamiliar by comparing it with something with which we are more familiar. The whole of human language is suffused with metaphors and could not operate without them. However, for a metaphor to work the creator of the metaphor has to have to have direct access to both parts -- the familiar bit, to which we make the comparison, and the unfamiliar bit which we are trying to illuminate by means of the comparison. If you don't have access to both parts then you cannot coin the metaphor in the first place let alone know whether it is is accurate. Remember -- metaphors can be completely wrong. For instance if a boxer were to fight with huge determination and effort and I said "He fought like a Three-toed Sloth" I would not only cause you to groan at the cliched poverty of my imagination, I would have completely misled you. The metaphor would have been inaccurate.

To take another example: in describing John's tenacity in debate I might say "He worries away at an argument like a terrier". Unless I both perceive John's style of argument directly and I know what a terrier is like then I cannot create the metaphor. You, as listener, only know about terriers (unless you are from a culture that knows nothing of dogs at all - in which case the metaphor is lost on you). You have never seen John but the comparison with a terrier works as it is something with which you are familiar.

Metaphors about God are fine when you simply consider yourself as the recipient of the metaphor. The obscure nature of God can be grasped through the more familiar image that the metaphor offers us. But who creates the metaphor in the first place? How is it possible, and how can the coiner check that the metaphor is accurate?

If the metaphors came to us from an impeccably authoritative source -- from, say, an angel, who had direct access to God then we would not have a problem (except establishing the authority in the first place!). Thus Muslims may have a strong argument here, for their revelation was dictated by Gabriel himself. However, for Liberal Christians, and others who do not believe in Revealed Religion, there is a big problem. If the humans who create the metaphors of Divinity have no special access to God then they cannot know that their metaphors are accurate. To return to our previous example: if I had never seen John argue then I can have no idea of what an accurate metaphor for his style would look like - and if I can't see God directly then I cannot even begin to generate a metaphor to characterise Him.

In the case of God, different types of believer use different metaphors to describe his nature. Some believers will talk of God as an implacable absolutist monarch, so incensed by humanity's disobedience that he is quite happy to see them destroyed by suicide bombers. Others will describe God as a loving father, ready to forgive his creation before they have even repented. How do you adjudicate between these contradictory metaphors? The only way is go back to the original and judge it against the two alternative comparators. However, as we have already established in the case of God, this is impossible because one end of the metaphor, the ineffible Godhead, is beyond human knowledge and experience.

I would therefore suggest that NOTHING can be said of the ineffable precisely because it is beyond experience. We cannot even say it exists. So in Wittgenstein's words, "Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent".

David Paterson thinks about - Incarnation

This Christian doctrine lies within a wider spectrum which includes at the one end the pagan concept of animism - the Divine is in everything and everything is Divine - and at the other, concepts of revealed books, in which the spirit is made not flesh but word. It is interesting that Christianity spans quite a wide range of that spectrum.

In the fourth Gospel, the concept of incarnation rests first on the personification of "The Word" with antecedents in the Hebrew wisdom literature's personification of the Logos - the Word. The writer of St John's Gospel identifies the man Jesus with this personifying of the divine. At this stage in the development of Christian thought there's a lot in common with the Hindu concept of the Avatar, and some Indian Christians are redeveloping this. However, Catholic Christianity did not go that way but developed the doctrine of the Trinity instead, effectively "taking the manhood of the Christ into the Godhead".

Incarnation in the wider sense is, I think, still a valuable insight, seeing the divine in the physical and mundane. It is consistent, in quite a powerful way, with the principle of Sea of Faith's "religion as a human creation". In becoming Man, God breaks down the barrier between the heavenly and the earthly. The veil in the temple is torn in two.

We may rightly reject Incarnation as a Christian dogma, but as a profound myth it is very powerful.

Rob Wheeler thinks about - Faith

At a recent talk I attended the Secular Humanist speaker dismissed faith as simply believing something without reason - or even against reason. Religious friends, on the other hand, often talk about their belief in the existence of God as a matter of faith. It seems to me that both of these positions are mistaken in various ways.

It was Wittgenstein who coined the idea that if you want to know the meaning of a word then you should examine how it's used in everyday life: there is no source of meaning other than collective usage.

In the case of faith I think it is beholden upon us to look at how it is used in everyday cases in order to truly understand what it means. Perhaps the best explication of faith is one I recall from my Sunday School days. The story is told of the great Victorian tight-rope walker Blondin who crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in the late 1850s. On one occasion he walked across blindfold, pushing a wheelbarrow. Having performed this feat he turned to a bystander and asked him if he believed that he, Blondin, could perform the feat again, but this time with a load in the barrow. The onlooker had no hesitation in saying "Yes - of course you can do it!". At this Blondin said, "Then jump in the barrow and I'll take you across". Predictably the onlooker demurred.

I think this story brings out several important features of faith. Firstly, that faith is a practical matter. It is about commitment to action - even if that action is simply waiting passively and patiently for something to happen. Belief, in contrast, is an assertion that so-and-so is the case. It does not necessarily entail action. It is therefore quite consistent to say that one believes in God but has no faith in him. I expect that many people who assent to Theistic belief in opinion surveys are simply of the opinion that God exists but have no personal faith or trust in him as such. Indeed, this must be the attitude of Satan in the Book of Job as he chats to God in the heavenly realm quite a bit. He obviously is convinced that God exists but it would be absurd to attribute faith to him on that basis.

Sometimes the distinction is made between 'belief-that' and 'belief-in'. To 'believe-that' is to assent to the truth of a statement while 'belief-in' is to take a risk on it and commit yourself to acting on that belief. It is one thing to say that you 'believe-that' God exists (merely assent) and quite a different thing to say that you 'believe-in' God as your saviour (making a life commitment or having faith). However, to 'believe-in' logically presupposes 'belief-that'. Faith is a transitive verb and always implies a person or state of affairs in which one has faith. My religious friends are therefore mistaken, I would argue, when they say they have "faith that God exists". God's existence is a matter of belief and not faith. Faith can only be exercised after belief has first been established.

But my Humanist friend is also wrong in her analysis of faith, for if there is logically a state of affairs that you have faith in then one can always give reasons for one's faith. In a weak sense then, faith can be said to be rational - although it does not follow from this that one has good or sufficient reasons for one's faith. That is something that has to examined on a case-by-case basis as there are no universal rules by which you can determine whether any action is rational.

Madame Butterfly, in the eponymous opera, has faith that Pinkerton will return to be her husband and to be a father to their child. She has good reasons to trust him but is sorely betrayed at the end of the opera when he arrives with his new wife to claim the child and take it away. Butterfly's faith does not pay off in the end but that does not render it irrational. She had good reasons from her point of view, to trust Pinkerton. However, it demonstrates that it is always possible to describe a state of affairs that amounts to one's faith either succeeding or failing to pay off. Indeed, I would want to say that unless you can state up-front what faithfulness or betrayal would amount to in a situation, then your claim faith has no content.

Faith is always a matter of judgement in the face of incomplete information. Faith is therefore an ineradicable part of human life because we frequently have to commit ourselves to action without certainty. But it is only a necessity, never a virtue.

Stephen Broughton thinks about... The Great Oak

At the bottom of my garden stood a great oak tree. It was there when a ‘select development of executive style developments’ was hastily assembled, which housed me and my family for about 12 years. It was there when a hundred years before, the Council created a Municipal Cemetery, an oasis of peace and sadness the other side of my garden fence. A place to visit, to remember, to bring flowers, to show love, to show you cared, to think of all the ‘if onlys’ which make up each person’s life story.

Each autumn, the Great Oak shed its harvest of acorns, a feast for the grey squirrels that lived their lives in its branches. Some they buried as a winter store some lay undiscovered to grow into trees for another generation, as the Great Oak had become the gift of a generation now long forgotten.

At the first Sea Of Faith Conference, held on a cold but bright day many years ago, we gathered to talk about things most of us had never talked about in public before. How the world of religious thought no longer gave us answers that made sense, no longer helped us make sense of our lives. We discovered that we shared a common conclusion that it just didn’t work any longer.

It was all going very well, when a lady sitting in front of me (I used to remember her name but sadly no more) asked the distinguished panel of speakers, ‘but what about the heart?’ It was a question that has never been answered and I speak as someone who has read, sometimes over and over, most of the words written so beautifully by Don Cupitt. Don who I first met as an earnest Theology Undergraduate in 1967.

The lady, whose question lived longer than the memory of who she was, went on to say that intellectual discussion was all very well but making sense of your life was for her an affair of the emotions. Whatever common sense told you was all very well but some of us, maybe most of us, live our lives through our feelings about things. It was an affair of the heart.

However atheistic my intellect has made me, my heart lives in the certain knowledge that the person I created as a choirboy in the 1950’s, the Jesus of the story books lives with me as an ever-present friend and guide. A person without whom I could never have survived as long as I have. Day by day he’s there telling me that all will be well. That if there is only one set of footprints in the sand, they are his carrying me through.

The acorns from the Great Oak feed me as they feed the grey squirrels.

It helps to have a positive mental approach to things. To think of life as a cup half full. To value what you have and not to be dragged down by what you don’t have, by the pain and the suffering we all endure. There are doubtless many ways of doing this but the one that works for me, the acorn that feeds me, is the certain knowledge that he is there for me as he has always been. Even though he probably never existed in the real world. Even though if he did we can never know anything about him.

The Great Oak disappears and the squirrels with it. Acorns fall no more. The winter store is bare. I can’t imagine such a world. The intellect tells us we don’t need it any more. Maybe we can use the Internet as we used cemeteries, a place to show your feelings, to make sense of life. But what of the people in the select development of executive style dwellings? How barren will their lives be? Is the problem of the heart to be solved by another generation of wonder drugs from Glaxo Smith Kline Beecham?

The Sea of Faith had had its day, has run its course, has ebbed and now runs down the pebbles on Dover Beach. Sadly the question was never answered. What about the heart? The Great Oak is no more. The world will look for its answers somewhere else.