A proposition that cannot be carried into practice at all cannot be true. An act that cannot be implemented in actuality must be somehow incoherent: self-refuting – for example, you can’t mean it when you say, “this statement is a lie” – or a contradiction in terms either simple or implicit – e.g., there’s just no way to implement “2 + 3 = 4,” for it is a contradiction in terms. That such propositions can’t work logically means that they can’t work in practice.
But a proposition that can be carried into practice might be true. E.g., “It is best not to defer gratification.”
When we sin, we assert one or more of a number of propositions:
- God does not exist.
- God is not omniscient.
- God is amoral.
- The world is amoral.
- God does not care whether I behave well or not, nor does the world.
- Whether or not God cares about my behavior does not matter (to me, at least).
And so forth. When we misbehave, we effectually attest to our belief in at least one of these propositions, or else in one of a number of other propositions like them. And to attest belief in propositions is to testify to their truth, and so is to urge their truth: behavior is an effectual proposal for how it might be well to behave.
What’s interesting about the propositions enumerated above is that they all boil down to an assertion that, one way or another, the world is not causally coherent, so that it is possible to get away scot free with our behavior. This assertion disagrees with our common quotidian experience (no one who is not mad believes in his heart that he has managed to put one over *on the whole world* – everyone who pulls off a scam is then forevermore looking over his shoulder for the first signs of the retribution that he knows must eventually follow), with our deepest and least arguable moral and ontological intuitions, with common sense, and with all the developed moral and ethical systems of man, whether theist or not. Karma, Tao, rta, krasis, Torah, logos, the Law of Compensation, the Conservation of Value, Mach’s Principle, quantum non-locality, TANSTAAFL: all insist in one way or another – or rather, in just the same way, but differently expressed – that things are integrally tied together, with no loose causal ends. Indeed, by the notions of identity and equivalence expressed in the equation that is the essential formal crux of all proposition (and therefore of all neural operation), and by the corollary implication that each truth is implicit in every other, so that no truths can disagree, mathematics and logic entail the coherence of all things – not just logically, but causally, economically, and morally. If reality were anywise incoherent, we could not possibly make any sense of it, and thought would be useless, the project of human knowledge forestalled, bankrupt in principio. And if it is not ultimately possible to think rationally, then neither is it possible to act rationally: to plan, or seek ends, or desire sanely. If reality is not coherent, it is not even possible to err, or mistake, or fail.
Behavior per se presupposes complete causal coherence.
So, the idea that we might get away with anything is just nuts. Nevertheless we can act as if it is true. We can, that is to say, err, mistake, and fail. All error, whether only intellectual or concretely pragmatic, must in the end amount to a failure properly to see or feel how things do in fact link up, and shape our acts accordingly.
The miscreant is aptly named, for the commission of sinful acts by a witting agent may be accomplished only by a willing disbelief in the truth of the inescapably true proposition that all things are linked together without jot or tittle of remainder. Only if that proposition be treated as if true might any errant act be undertaken in the first place, for no advantage to any sort of action, errant or not, is at all available to begin with if the system of things be not coherent, so that pushing here reliably generates pulls over there, where one wants them. It’s no good to rob banks if banks are not reliable stores of cash.
The miscreant has literally engaged in bad belief: in beliefs that diverge from reality even as they presuppose it. He has missed the basic truth of the created order that makes of it an order, and so a creation. Bad faith, Sartre called it: a repudiation of man’s true authority and freedom, springing from an ultimately cowardly refusal to confront reality as she actually is. The miscreant has missed creation.
We can thus err, obviously. I do it myself every few minutes, every time I sin. We might not.
Why do we?
Well, concupiscence. That’s the name for the general temptation to take short cuts, moral or intellectual, that are shorter than is really possible. We are rightly made to seek the right theory of things, that really adequates to them, so that our acts may do likewise. Ockham was correct with his Razor: we ought not to multiply entities unnecessarily. But neither, by the same token, ought we to eliminate them unnecessarily. As Einstein said, we ought to prefer the theory that is short, but not too short. Concupiscence is the temptation to advert to a theory of things that is too simple to be quite adequate, that is therefore easier to cope with; and then to act upon it.
Notice then that, things being impeccably coherent in actual fact, it cannot be really possible to implement incoherence, of any sort. We might think that we can get away with sin, and we might therefore go ahead and sin. But no matter what we do, God cannot be mocked: things will cohere, no matter what, and the justice of coherence will roll over us relentlessly.
It turns out that the sort of propositions I listed at the head of this essay, then, cannot really be implemented, even by those who think they are doing just that. It is as impossible to carry “God does not exist” into the actual practice of life as it is to implement “2 + 3 = 4.” The atheist cannot say that God does not exist without presupposing God’s existence. When we sin, we do not contravene truth, but rather only contradict it, and set ourselves against it. That this cannot in the end be accomplished is demonstrated by the fact of sin’s eventual comeuppance, and truth’s eventual, complete and devastating victory.