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Errors abundant

Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How is error possible? This is ambiguous between two related questions.

Consider the case of action: obviously, many people commit wrong acts — acts that they should not commit. The first question is fairly superficial: are such acts something other than purposive movement — that is, mere behavior that is inexplicable as voluntary action, as good-seeking? The answer is clearly no: the wicked person — Scrooge, for instance, or Herostratus — thinks that the last end is money or fame, but he is wrong about what his last end actually is.

But there is a second, deeper question: why should wickedness even be possible? If the wicked person’s last end is not, in fact, money or fame, isn’t it strange that he could take it to be? Metaphysically speaking, this is deeply confusing: the good — that toward which the wicked person is determined to move — is objectively one thing but subjectively another. For Aristotle, it is as though a rock, though determined to fall down, nonetheless fell up. We never see final causality failing in rocks — that is, we never see rocks “sin” by falling upwards — so why do we see it failing in humans? Material causality, for instance, never fails in this way: it is not as though a human, though in fact made of flesh and bone, ever acts as though he is made of air and floats up into the sky.

The answer to this second question is that everything is good to some extent: everything is a finite reflection of God, and since God is Goodness, everything that exists is good — that is, everything that exists can be taken, metaphysically speaking, as one’s goal. The wicked person is not, as Aristotle makes quite clear, completely wrong: if he was completely wrong — if money and fame weren’t good at all — the universe would contain irreducible irrationality. Obviously, if the universe is a reflection of Mind — whose very essence is the Principle of Noncontradiction — this is impossible. But this is not how it is: the wicked person merely takes a partial good for the whole good.

Consider the parallel case of knowledge: obviously, many people affirm false beliefs — beliefs that they should not affirm. The first question is fairly superficial: are these beliefs something other than cognition — that is, mere cogitation that is inexplicable as justified belief, as truth-seeking? The answer is clearly no: the confused person — Heraclitus, for instance, or Parmenides — believes that all is change or stability, but he is wrong about how things actually are.

But there is a second, deeper question: why should confusion even be possible? If the world is not, in fact, all change or stability, isn’t it strange that Heraclitus or Parmenides could take it to be? Metaphysically speaking, this is deeply confusing: the true — that because of which the wicked person believes as he does — is objectively one way but subjectively another. For Aristotle, it is as though a hot rock, though truly a hot rock, nonetheless cooled the air surrounding it. We never see efficient causality failing in hot rocks — that is, we never see the surrounding air “believe” falsely by cooling after contact with a hot object — so why do we see it failing in humans? Again, material causality never fails in this way.

The answer to the second question is that every belief is true to some extent: everything is a finite reflection of God, and since God is Truth, everything that exists is True — that is, everything that one can believe does, in some respect, represent the world that caused one to have that belief. The confused person is not, as Aristotle makes quite clear, completely wrong: if he was completely wrong — if change and stability weren’t aspects of how the world actually is — the universe would contain irreducible irrationality. Again, since the universe is a reflection of Mind, this is impossible. But this is not how it is: the confused person merely take partial truths for the whole truth.

One does not, of course, have to buy any of this. Most do not nowadays. But realize that, if one thinks that genuine irrationality can exist in the world — if, in other words, one admits the possibility of Radical Evil and, for lack of a better term, Radical Falsehood — one raises serious doubt that the world is in fact a Cosmos — is, in other words, a reflection of Rationality Itself, the Creation of God — rather than just a Weird Thing that Happened. All of us held, once upon a time, that all things are, ultimately, born of God and, ultimately, directed back toward God. Some of us hold this still.

But there are also drawbacks to buying all of this. The results of our exercise in ethics and epistemology are disturbing at best: things that we usually take to be unqualified evils, like arson and confusion and genocide, must achieve some good. This is what all of our pious talk about God having a “larger plan” actually means — that the universe, whatever the appearances, should have a purposeful ordering in which every part — no matter how depraved — has some function, some role to play.

Either of these options should make one profoundly uncomfortable.

 

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on WVFI. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.