Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Civil Engineering of Argument: Holding Out One's Hand

It's certainly true that engineering plays a big role in our study of argument, and no branch of its varied disciplines more than the one called "civil" - which most often means building things: roads and bridges and all the many structures of transport and of other public needs.

This annoys some people. They think that philosophy must be pure, and the liberal arts must never stoop to practicality. Now, I am from the tech side of the university, yet I have read The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. I have read the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, where he speaks of Jesus Christ as the One "In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" [Col 2:3] which does not seem to contain any fine print about how this "ALL" excludes the tech branches. Rather, I seem to recall our Lord saying "I am the Way" [Jn 14:6]... and that word hodos in Greek has FIRST the very practical sense of "road" as well as the most analogical sense of scheme, pattern, series of directions, method. Besides, "method" is just the same word anyway! (The "HOD" is the same root, and I do not mean route. Hee hee.)

But I said it was "civil" engineering: which comes from the Latin for "town" (they mean Roma, but it could be your town too.) For the ancients knew that it takes a certain civility - a grandness and an awareness and attention to human dignity - in order to live in a town. Yes, the key word is "order".

And that means learning some rules - often rather technical rules, and maybe sometimes rules that are not obvious.

Today we are going to learn one of those rules: the rule about how truth "happens" in the human mind. It is something very few people ever stop to think about, even philosophers, because it gets aa little intricate, but we aren't going into all the tech details today. In fact, we're just going to get a convenient little guide - yes, a handy guide - something as simple as our hand - five simple points to remember. There are five possible states for the human mind in regard to the truth of a given statement:

1. Error - you claim to know something but it's not true.
2. Ignorance - you really don't know about it.
3. Doubt - you're not sure if it's true or false.
4. Opinion - you suspect - maybe very strongly) it is true.
5. Certitude - you are convinced it's true.

Naming these five from the thumb, then, we have CODIE. (Sounds like a cowboy's nickname, maybe.) But let's try to remember the five: Certitude, Opinion, Doubt, Ignorance, Error.

You are wondering why we need this if we want to have an argument? Remember, an argument is NOT (repeat!) not a quarrel, or a fight. It is a way of building facts together into truth. Well - if you want to build a road or indeed to do anything practical, you have to have some sound basis - but part will be theoretical (a plan) and part practical (a foundation, the raw materials, energy and so forth). This is part of the planning we need to have, or all we will have is a quarrel, and we will get NOWHERE, and maybe even get hurt. We want to get somewhere: to the truth - and so we need to know "how much" of the truth it is we are getting, which means one of those five possible states.

You may grasp all this directly, but more likely you will want some more detail to better see the specifics of these five possibilities, so I will quote again from Shallo's Scholastic Philosophy:

84. The mind is said to attain and possess truth when it pronounces judgments in conformity with things. Now, in regard to the attainment and possession of truth, the mind must be in one or the other of these five states. Either it pronounces a false judgment; or it has no knowledge of the object; or it has some knowledge, but hesitates to judge; or it judges, yet not with firmness and security; or, finally, it judges without any hesitancy or insecurity. In the first case, we have error; in the second, ignorance; in the third, doubt; in the fourth, opinion; in the fifth, certitude.

85. Ignorance is lack of knowledge, i. e., a state of mind in which one has neither ideas nor judgments in regard to a certain matter. It may be universal, as, e. g., 'in the case of infants'; or more or less partial, according as it extends to fewer or more truths. If the unknown truths are such as one can and ought to know, ignorance of them is called primitive ignorance. In other cases, it is said to be merely negative.

There are many things of which the mind of man, left to itself, can know nothing, either because they are above its natural capacity, e. g., 'the mystery of the Godhead,' or because it has not sufficient data to proceed upon, e. g., 'the number of the stars.' But apart from these, there are many subjects upon which the human mind can acquire more or less full and perfect knowledge. Ignorance in such matters is to be attributed to lack either of ability or of opportunities, or of application and industry, or of order and method in study.

86. Doubt, we have said, is a state of mental hesitancy or suspense, so that the mind, on comparing two ideas together, finds itself unable to pronounce whether they are objectively identical or diverse. Hence, it is defined, hesitation or suspense of mind between two contradictory judgments. The doubt is positive when there are, or seem to be, good reason on both sides. It is negative when there is, or seems to be, no good reason for either side. Daily experience shows us that there are a multitude of judgments, in regard to which, under the present circumstances, it is rational to remain in doubt. There are some, however, who maintain that we must doubt about everythmg, or, at least, about many things of which our own reason and the common sense of mankind declare we are certain. These are called sceptics. Scepticism, in general, is a state of doubt in regard to those things which are known with certamty by means of our natural faculties, properly disposed and applied.

NOTE. - The word belief is used in many senses. In strictness it means, Assent to a proposition on sufficient testimony In the language of the Church it means, Absolute certainty on the supreme authority of God.

87. Certitude is defined, Firmness of mental assent, or of adhesion to a truth, from a motive which manifestly excludes all rational fear of error. Hence certitude includes three essential elements, two of which are subjective, and the third objective, viz.: (1) firmness of adhesion, (2) exclusion of alla rational fear of error, and (3) an objective motive manifestly and really sufficient to exclude all fear of error.

NOTE (1). - By a motive of assent we mean the reason why we give internal mental assent to a given proposition. By an objective motive, we mean something independent of our own views and feelings, something in objects themselves, or in their surroundings, which justifies and compels our assent, and to which we can appeal as justifying and compelling assent in any rational being who perceives it. By an objective motive uhich excludes all reasonable fear of error, we mean a motive which shows clearly that, in the given case, the contradictory of the proposition we assent to, is not merely improbable, but impossible. Hence, a certain judgment is always true.

(2).— It is one thing to see clearly that a given predicate belongs to a given subject, and that the contradictory proposition, in the given case, expresses an impossibility; it is quite another thing to be able to answer all the arguments that may be urged against our proposition, and in favor of the contradictory. Hence, as Newman says, "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."

(3).- It is clear that of the two subjective elements of certitude one may be described as positive, i. e., the firmness of adhesion (this is variable, and may be greater or less, according to the force of the motive); the other may be called negative, i. e., the exclusion of all rational fear of error (this is invariable, and must be equally found in all certain judgments; for, if there be any, even the smallest rational fear of error, the judgment ceases to be certain).

88. Kinds of Certitude.

(a) Certitude is metaphysical, physical or moral, according as the manifest objective necessity of uniting or separating Subject and predicate is metaphysical, physical or moral, i. e., according as this necessity is based upon the essential natures of things, or on the laws of nature, or on the moral laws which govern the constant and universal though free action of man, e. g., 'Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other'; 'if you put your hand into the fire you will feel pain'; 'Your mother is not praying that you may die a disgraceful death.'

NOTE (1). - Moral certitude, taken strictly, must exclude absolutely all fear of error. Very often, however, a thing is said to be morally certain when it is only very probable, but this is not the sense in which the words are taken here.

(a). - When we speak of various kinds or degrees of certitude, we consider, not so much the connection between subject and predicate in the proposition we assent to, as the connection between the proposition itself and the motive accompanying it, which renders the contradictory (metaphysically, physically or morally) impossible in the given case. Hence, when a judgment is metaphysically certain, its contradictory is absolutely impossible. When a judgment is physically certain, the contradictory s physically impossible, i. e., unless God suspends the laws of nature in the given case. When a judgment is morally certain, the contradictory is morally impossible, i. e., unless man belies his nature and acts contrary to its tendencies in the given case.

(b) Direct certitude is that which immediately accompanies the direct perception of a truth. Reflex certitude is had when the mind, going back on its direct judgment, examines the motive distinctly and perceives that its direct certitude is justified and says, as it were, I am certain that I am certain.

98. Opinion, as we have said, is a state of mind in regard to truth midway between doubt and certitude, i. e., the mind forms a judgment in regard to a certain matter and has a motive for doing so; yet this motive is not such as to exclude all fear of error. As in certitude, the motive is the objective necessity of uniting or separating subject and predicate; so in opinion, the motive is the objective probability or likelihood of this union or separation being true.

NOTE (1). - Objective probability is intrinsic if it is based upon the nature of the object of which there is question; extrinsic if it is based upon the authority of prudent men.

(a). Probability admits of degrees and is greater or less according as it excludes more or less the danger of error, and more or less warrants firmness of assent. Hence, we have opinions which are slightly probable, solidly probable, more probable, most probable.

99. Opinion, even when most probable, essentially differs from certitude.

Proof.— Two things essentially differ when one includes, as an essential element, something which the other does not include. But certitude includes, as an essential element, the exclusion of all rational fear of error, which opinion, even when most probable, does not include. The motive of assent either excludes the fear of error, or it does not; there is no mean. If it does, we have certitude; if it does not, no matter how much it may really lessen the fear of error we Ron inter have opinion.

NOTE (1). - At times many distinct motives, each of which taken separately could only produce opinion, when taken togather produce certainty. But in this case the certitude is the result, not of the mere sum of the separate probabilities, but of the collection of motives, taken as a whole, in which each motive gains from and gives to all the rest an entirely new force and value, e. g., the case of several independent witnesses.

(a) A solidly probable opinion does not cease to be so, because the contradictory opinion is more probable. For, a good motive does not lose its force by being compared with ~ better; therefore, the opinion founded on the one does not lose its value by being compared with that founded on the other, so long as this other does not give us certainty.

(Note: There are a lot of possible meanings for "Error" and some of them deal with the tech machinery of logic, but I will give you some of the others. I think you will be very amazed to learn about it - it's like hearing a physician explain about how cancer, or a cold, or poison ivy, or sumburn, or a broken leg, are all different...)
Hence the occasion of false or erroneous judgments is generally to be found in want of attention or obscure and confused ideas on the part of the intellect; the ultimate cause is the will desirous of some good, or impatient of suspense.

(3). - The occasions of false judgments are classified by Bacon under four heads:

(a) Idols of the tribe, i. e., Errors to which the human mind is liable from its own finite and limited nature, e. g., the difficulties it finds in acquiring clear, distinct, complete ideas of a great many objects, and on the other hand, its eagerness for knowledge.

(b) Idols of the den, i. e., Errors which arise from the peculiar character and disposition, education and prejudices of each individual.

(c) Idols of the market place, i. e., Errors which are almost imposed upon us by the tyranny of public opinion and our own innate love for novelty. Our newspapers and renews or pet authors do our thinking for us.

(d) Idols of the theatre, i. e., the various systems of false and fashionable philosophy current in our times.

Add to these the influence of passion, negligence, lack of logical training, inaccurate use of language, etc., and we have abundant occasion of false judgments all the day long, unless we are constantly on our guard.

(iii) Sophistical Reasoning.

72. An open violation of any of the laws of correct reasoning is called a paralogism. When a false premise is introduced, or a false sense given to a premise, we have a sophism; the latter we may call a verbal sophism, the former a real sophism. Of paralogisms nothing further need be said.

(a) Verbal Sophisms.

Equivocation. An equivocal or vague term is taken in different senses.

Amphibology. An ambiguous proposition is taken in different senses.

Composition or Division. A predicate is attributed to a qualified subject, which really belongs to it only when without the qualification, or vice versa. Or again, a predicate true of each individual subject separately, is.attributed to all taken collectively; or vice versa.

(b) Real Sophisms.

Accident. A predicate which is only accidental and occasional in a given subject, is represented as constant and essential to it; and vice versa. Or again, what is true of a few instances only, is represented as true of a whole class; and vice versa.

Missing or Evading the Question. Ignoratio elenchi. Attention is turned away from the real question to something like it, or in some way connected with it. Under this head will also come the Argumentum ad Hominem, ad Invidiam, etc.

Begging the Question. The conclusion to be proved is in some way or other covertly assumed as true in the premises.

False Cause. A mere antecedent or concomitant is represented as cause: Post Hoc, Cum Hoc; ergo, Propter Hoc.

NOTE. - Of all these forms of sophistical reasoning we have numerous instances in current literature and oratory, as well as of many others which a logician will easily recognize, e. g., 'hasty induction,' 'false analogy,' 'unverified and impossible hypotheses,' 'citation of untrustworthy authorities,' etc., etc.

Yes, there are lots of details. You do not need to know all these formal names of errors if you want to argue, but you need to be aware of the many, many pitfalls that exist along the road we are trying to build...

And in order to seal this very technical posting with some pleasant Chesterton, let us hear a very witty bit from GKC:
Let me take the case of Mr. Mackail and his omnibuses. He describes with great humour how the "omnibus authorities" began building roofs over the tops of omnibuses, explaining that it was but an experiment depending on democratic approval; that the passenger had but to say the word, and they would "instantly tear all those new tops off again, and throw them on to the dust-heap." He then adds with admirable sincerity that, though he feels flattered by being thus made the arbiter of architecture or ruin, he really does not know which he does want. He will forgive my saying that in this he is very typical of the public which our plutocracy governs, and explains why the plutocracy governs it. He can only say that when the sun is shining he would like the roof off, and when it is pouring with rain he would like the roof on. This is reasonable enough up to a point; but it is a reason for not coming to a conclusion. We might almost say that it is a reason for not having a reason. Now, I hope Mr. Mackail will not think me puffed up with spiritual pride if I say with some satisfaction that I know which I prefer, and I know why I prefer it. And I can thus come to a conclusion rapidly, because I have the habit of referring things to first principles.
pGKC ILN Dec 4 1926 CW34:210]
But perhaps GKC's opponent Mr. Mackail is too obscure for you. Let us take another quote, about someone much more likely to be recognized, where we see GKC's brilliant scholasticism:
if a man wanted one real and rational test, which really does distinguish the mediaeval from the modern mood, it might be stated thus. The mediaeval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay. It would be unfair, perhaps, to say that the modern man only essays to think - or, in other words, makes a desperate attempt to think. But it would be true to say that the modern man often only essays, or attempts, to come to a conclusion. Whereas the mediaeval man hardly thought it worth while to think at all, unless he could come to a conclusion. That is why he took a definite thing called a Thesis, and proposed to prove it. That is why Martin Luther, a very mediaeval man in most ways, nailed up on the door the theses he proposed to prove. Many people suppose that he was doing something revolutionary, and even modernist, in doing this. In fact, he was doing exactly what all the other mediaeval students and doctors had done ever since the twilight of the Dark Ages. If the really modern Modernist attempted to do it, he would probably find that he had never arranged his thoughts in the form of theses at all.
[GKC ILN Feb 16 1929 CW35:43]
Still too long? OK, here's the epigram you were waiting for:
The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.
[GKC Heretics CW1:196]
That's our conclusion - and that is what you need to remember for today.


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