Whether the Structure of a Disputed Question in the Summa Be Most Perfect?

It seems that the structure of a disputed question in the Summa is most perfect.

1. For St. Thomas was the greatest of theologians. Consequently his work, namely the Summa, was constructed in the most perfect manner.

2. Again, Aristotle says that in order to come to know a certain matter, one should consider the opinions of others on the issue and the difficulties that can arise concerning it. This is done by considering the objections before proceeding to resolve the issue with the body of the article, and then finishing by resolving all of the difficulties in the answers to the objections. Therefore the structure of a Summa article is a perfect structure for coming to know.

3. Again, it belongs to the teacher to explain a matter in full, and then to use this explanation to resolve all of the difficulties. Thus the objections correspond to the questions of the students, while the rest of the article corresponds to the explanation of the teacher. Thus the structure of a Summa article seems to be perfect.

But against this are the words of St. Thomas introducing the Summa, “We intend in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners.” Thus the articles are formulated for beginners and not for the sake of a perfect understanding which can be achieved by those who more advanced.

I respond, it should be said that the structure of a disputed question in the Summa is not most perfect, but is abbreviated for the sake of beginners, as St. Thomas implies in the words quoted above. It is true that in order to come to know, one must understand the difficulties of an issue, but it is not sufficient to understand the difficulties that are opposed to the truth. It is also necessary to understand the various indications by which the truth is made known, and therefore the more perfect structure is that found in the disputed questions of the schools, where arguments are made not only against the position of the teacher, but also in favor of that position. The reply to the first is evident from this.

To the second it should be said that the structure of a Summa article does indeed model the dialectical process in general, but it does not include the whole of the process, since the arguments in favor of the truth are omitted.

To the third it should be said that the students may also have some thoughts that correspond to the truth, and also that even the teacher actually comes to a knowledge of the truth not only through a principal argument, as in the body of the article, but through many arguments.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is related to the tendency to say that all of the evidence is on my side. In particular it consists in attending to evidence that supports my position while ignoring contrary evidence, or interpreting the contrary evidence so that it appears to be supporting evidence. One way to resist this tendency is to notice that despite the saying, absence of evidence is in fact evidence of absence. If observing some evidence tomorrow would make your hypothesis more likely, then if tomorrow comes and you do not observe the evidence, your hypothesis becomes less likely. So if you can recognize the circumstances in which your hypothesis becomes more likely, you should be able to recognize the circumstances in which it becomes less likely.

For example, in the previous post, most people would recognize that (2) is evidence against (1), but recognizing this appears to be more difficult for Mormons. Nonetheless, if it had turned out that the Book of Abraham was in fact an accurate translation of an ancient Egyptian manuscript, this would have been evidence favoring Mormonism, and there can be no doubt that Mormons would have recognized it as such. Consequently, if they can recognize that this would have favored their position, they should be able to recognize that the actual fact (2) is evidence against it.

You cannot have it both ways. If you concede that getting what you ask for every time you pray to your guardian angel would be evidence for his existence, then not getting what you ask for is evidence against his existence. Of course such negative evidence is not necessarily very strong, and this may in fact be the point of the linked post.

The Evidence Does Not Change Sides

Suppose someone holds the following position:

(1) Mormonism is the true religion.

Then he discovers this fact:

(2) Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from an Egyptian manuscript, but in reality the Egyptian manuscript was about something completely different.

Now this doesn’t look good. In fact, it looks exactly as though the Book of Abraham is a complete fraud, which seems to imply that position (1) is false. In other words, (2) is strong evidence against (1).

So our protagonist modifies his position like this:

3) Mormonism is the true religion, and Smith interpreted the Egyptian manuscript by divine inspiration, revealing its spiritual sense.

Now he notices something. After the discovery of fact (2), position (3) becomes more probable than it originally was, since part of position (3) is now verified to be definitely true, namely the fact that the book of Abraham is a not a literal translation of the Egyptian manuscript. Thus, the original disturbing fact which seemed to be evidence against his position, is now evidence in favor of his new position! And the new position includes position (1), so there is no need to change a thing!

This reasoning is technically valid, of course, but our protagonist is overlooking a few things.

First of all, (1) is in itself more probable than (3), since (3) requires the truth of (1) and something else in addition.

Second, after the discovery of (2), (1) becomes less probable, likely significantly less probable, than it was before. This fact remains unchanged by the rest of the process.

Third, (3) does indeed become more probable than it originally was, after the discovery of (2). However, (3) was less probable than (1) in the first place, and even after it becomes more probable, it remains less probable than (1) originally was, and it also remains less probable than (1) became after the discovery of (2). This is necessary because (3) is nothing but a particular way that (1) could be true. So by adopting the new position, our protagonist has not benefited by (2) in the way that he believes. Rather, he ends up holding a position that is even less probable than claiming that Mormonism is true, admitting that the Book of Abraham is not a valid translation of the Egyptian manuscript, admitting that this makes his original position regarding Mormonism less probable, and making no other changes.

In other words, the evidence does not change sides.

The Evidence is Not Automatically on Your Side

One thing is evidence for a second thing if the second thing is more probable given the first, than the second without considering the first. Thus the fact that you are reading this blog post is evidence that you are a native English speaker, since someone reading the post is more likely to be a native English speaker than a random person is.

One common mistake is to think that there cannot be evidence for something false; but my position is true and the opposite is false; therefore there cannot be any evidence against my position. Thus people say things like, “Evolutionary belief is a remarkable and largely unexplained phenomenon. It is a belief held by most intellectuals all over the world, despite the fact that there is no real scientific evidence for it at all.” Again, someone holding another position says, “Critics of evolution claim that it is just a theory for which there is no proof. It is true there is no definitive proof, and nor is there likely to be, but there is a vast amount of evidence in its favour. Whether you choose to believe it is sufficient is up to you, but it is there. By contrast, there is no scientific evidence for creationism.”

The claim that your opponent’s position has no evidence for it is always false, without exception. For the very fact that your opponent holds the position is evidence for it, since a position that someone holds is more likely to be true than a random position that no one holds. But even apart from this, given any particular position that real people hold, we can expect to be able to find any number of facts that make more it more likely than it would be without those facts, even if the thing is absolutely false. Thus if you buy a lottery ticket, it is evidence that you will win the lottery, since it becomes more likely that you will win, having a ticket, than not having one. But ordinarily you won’t win anyway, despite your evidence for it.

Progress in Technology

In a certain way this post is not distinct from the previous one, since I noted there that progress in the truth is mainly the result of improved “technologies” for the learning of truth and for the transmission of truth. In a similar way, improvement in technology in general can be seen as improvement in the knowledge of how to make things, which is the truth of the mechanical arts.

Pope Francis is certainly right to say that “scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history.” Nonetheless, these are related. It is normal that a technological improvement will disrupt some aspect of human life, if only because it is different from what has so far been done, and in this way it is likely to have some bad consequences. But when people notice the bad consequences of the new technology, instead of rejecting the technology, they usually try to look for other adjustments which will remove or reduce the bad consequences. I maintain that over time this results in overall improvement of the world through technological change. It is clear enough that basically everyone recognizes this through their own choices. If someone really believes that a technology makes life worse, we would expect him to refrain from using that technology. Now it is certainly true that some people refrain from using some technologies for this reason, but for most people it is not a general response to new technology. Rather, almost everyone is happy to adopt all sorts of new technologies, implying that they believe that their lives are improved by them. Even with particular groups such as the Amish, they reject only particular technologies, and usually the number of accepted technologies tends to grow over time even with such groups, but at a slower pace than in mainstream society.

We could look at the whole picture of progress in this way: people desire the good. They may not be completely successful, but they have some success in attaining it. And to the degree that they attain the good, they become even more capable of attaining what they seek, which overall leads to progress in attaining the good. Consequently the world overall tends to be successful in the way defined here, although it remains possible for things to become worse locally. The world as a whole may also become worse at times, but this is likely to happen infrequently and for relatively short periods of time.

Progress in the Truth

Individuals start out knowing nothing, and then they learn things over time, which constitutes progress in the knowledge of the truth.  Of course sometimes they adopt false views, but even false views contain some truth. And sometimes they regress, as by forgetting some truth that they knew, or by abandoning true views and adopting false ones. But surely for most people most of the time, they are learning new things, refining true views, or improving false views so that they are less false. Naturally this will not apply to everyone at all times, but surely it is the norm.

This growth in knowledge will automatically carry over to some degree to communities and institutions, and to humanity as a whole, insofar as each of these is composed of individuals. However, this applies mainly over short periods of time, and there is no such guarantee for communities over longer periods, since individuals die and are replaced by other individuals who need to learn everything over again.

Over time, people have devised ways to overcome this problem to a greater or lesser extent, beginning with tradition. The wise man who has arrived at some knowledge by experience can pass it on to others simply by telling them about it, without the need for everyone to have the same experience. However, this is an imperfect method of transmission, since without experience the thing is not known as well, and sometimes the tradition is distorted, misinterpreted, or ultimately forgotten. Writing was a still stronger means of passing on knowledge, preserving knowledge intact for longer periods of time and allowing a greater possibility for building on the knowledge of the past. The internet is a still stronger means, more or less in the same vein, with a greater guarantee of common knowledge over the entire planet. Thus for example many Eastern European countries under communism used textbooks stating that Galileo was burned at the stake, a historical falsehood. With the internet it becomes easier to eliminate mistakes of this kind.

There are also protocols that apply mainly to certain topics, more convincing ways to transmit truth so that all or the great majority accept it. Thus mathematics and various sciences have become more or less universal, not in the sense that everyone knows them, but in the sense that those who study them basically agree on the conclusions. This allows for the possibility of progress in mathematics, physics, and the like over periods of time much longer than a human lifetime.

There are also many areas which do not have such protocols, such as religion, philosophy, politics, ethics, and the like. This does not mean that there has been no progress in these areas, but it may mean that there has been less. Thus the fact that polytheism is now very uncommon suggests progress in religion.

There are various possible ways that the transmission of truth might be improved in the future, both in general and in regard to specific topics. But even if these ways are not devised, the worst that can happen is that certain areas will stagnate on account of the original problem mentioned, the fact that individuals die and are replaced by others. There is no reason to believe that in these areas considered overall, knowledge will decrease over long periods of time. This means that the overall trend will be one of growth in the truth (since the combination of stagnating areas and growing areas will be an overall trend of growth).

Another way to summarize all of this is that “ways of learning the truth” and “ways of transmitting the truth to future generations” are two technologies, and humanity has been improving both of these technologies, resulting in overall growth in the truth for humanity.

The Progress of Humanity and History

Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’:

113. There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere.

Here he denies that technological progress is the same as progress for humanity, and elsewhere he criticizes those “who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.” This criticism seems to be related to the above statement. The Pope is not saying that progress does not exist; the “myth of progress” is not that progress exists, but that it is constituted by “the application of new technology.” In the same way, although he begins paragraph 113 by saying “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future,” he continues by saying that there is a “growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere.” In general, then, the myth may consist in saying that technological growth is sufficient for progress, and that progress is guaranteed without any special effort.

I stated in the previous post that a successful world will in fact tend to grow in goodness. This however does not guarantee that a world will always be successful in this way, and it is clear enough that improvement in one respect, such as technology, does not guarantee improvement overall. So it remains a question whether or not the world we live in is in fact successful, if it is in fact getting better, or not. It is certainly not staying the same, which means that it must be getting better or getting worse, but it could be that overall things are constantly getting worse, or that they go back and forth such that on average it is much the same as staying the same. The following posts will consider this issue.

The Order of the World

Aristotle gives five meanings of before and after:

1. Before in time. 2:00 PM is before 3:00 PM.

2. Before by nature. The existence of man implies the existence of animal, but the existence of animal does not imply the existence of man, so animal comes first.

3. Before in understanding. The premises of an argument come before the conclusion.

4. Before in goodness. The better thing is first.

5. Before in causality. The cause is before the effect.

The world is ordered in all of these ways, and the various orders have certain relationships. The order of time lines up with the order of nature to some extent, since if a thing implies the existence of something else, it cannot exist temporally before the thing the existence of which it implies. Thus animals existed before human beings, but not human beings before animals. This order is never reversed, but sometimes the order of nature does not also include an order of time. Thus the first bodies must also have been some particular kind of body; there was no temporal sequence there.

For material, formal, and efficient causes, the cause is always simultaneous in time with the effect. However, on account of its causal priority, that which constitutes the cause sometimes comes temporally before that which constitutes the effect, and never the other way around. Thus in this sense the order of the things which are causes to some extent shares in the temporal order in the same way that the order of nature does.

The final cause is sometimes taken as that which is loved, and in this sense it has no definite temporal relation to its effect. Thus sometimes it comes after, as the money which is loved makes a man work for it, and sometimes it comes before, as the wife who is loved makes a man praise her even after her death.

But when the final cause is taken as that which is desired but not yet possessed, it always comes after its effect, assuming that it comes to be at all. This results in a temporal order which is reversed according to final causality, but which corresponds to the order of goodness. What possesses the good is better than what does not possess it, and comes after in time, unless something fails such that the efficient cause which sought the final cause does not succeed in attaining the good it desired.

Thus a successful world is one in which the order of time basically corresponds with the order of causality and the order of goodness. This is what St. Thomas means when he says that the good of the world consists in its order, and that its order consists principally in the fact that one thing is the cause of another, and that one thing is better than another.

Pope Francis and Proselytization

Pope Francis has criticized the practice of proselytization a number of times, as in his dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari.

Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.

Some have argued that insofar as “proselytization” has negative connotations, Pope Francis only means to condemn unfair and unreasonable means of persuasion, and not the general idea of trying to persuade people. For example, Fr. Zuhlsdorf says:

The “proselytism” that Pope Francis scorns is not to be equated with “evangelization”.

Surely what Francis scorns is the crude proselytizing à la Pentecostals and Mormons in Latin America.That is the sort of proselytism with which Francis would be familiar.  That is the sort of proselytism that we will probably be accused of when we engage in any kind of evangelization.

However, it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that Pope Francis intends to reject all attempts to persuade others to believe what you believe. For example, in his advice reported in this news article, he is said to have given this suggestion:

9. Don’t proselytize; respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing,” the pope said.

“I am talking with you in order to persuade you,” directly suggests that any deliberate attempt to persuade others is proselytization and should be rejected. Again, Brian Stiller, reporting on a private conversation with the Pope, says that Pope Francis said, “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community.  There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.” Of course since this is Brian’s recollection it may not be exact, but it fits with the general tendency seen elsewhere.

It seems to me that the main reason that Fr. Zuhsdorf and others wish to interpret the Pope to be allowing for reasonable persuasion is that rejecting this would apparently fall into heresy. However, this conclusion is probably not necessary, since just as recent Popes have rejected the application of capital punishment at the present time, without asserting that it was wrong at all times, which would contradict Catholic tradition, Pope Francis could be making a prudential judgment that it is currently bad to try to persuade others to adopt your religion. In any case he does seem to present a general rejection of persuasion. When the Church grows “by attraction,” this presumably happens at the initiative of those who enter the Church, without anyone else trying to persuade them to do this.

I have a personal recollection of the Pope being quoted as saying something like “everyone should remain within his own faith tradition,” although I was not able to find the text for this post. This may explain his rejection of persuasion. He sees that someone who abandons his own faith tradition does harm to the previous relationships he had with that faith community. In order to justify this, one has to care very much about the truth, and it does not appear that Pope Francis does in fact care that much, so he puts the priority on the harm done to the existing relationships. It is true, in fact, that religious conversion does this harm, and this fact may have been neglected by many in the past. On the other hand, Pope Francis’s apparent lack of concern for the truth is somewhat disturbing.


Jacques Mattheij argues here in favor of privacy, beginning with an account of how the Nazis during World War II used an Amsterdam civil registry in order to track down and slaughter the Jewish people of the city. He concludes with this question:

If you really strongly feel that you have nothing that you consider private ask yourself this: Even if you have done nothing wrong, are you willing to publish your pin code, a high resolution scan of your signature, your passport, your SSN, your passwords, your photographs (naked, preferably), your medical records, the conversations with your attorney, the amount of money you currently have, your criminal record (if you have any), your bank statements, your tax returns for the last 10 years, your license plate and a copy of your driving license, your sexual orientation, your infidelities, the names of the people that you love, the names of the people you despise, the contents of your diary, all the emails you ever wrote and received, your report cards, your entire credit history, all the stuff you ever bought, all the movies you’ve ever watched, all the books you ever read, your religion, your home address and so on for all the world to see?

If you’re willing to do all of that then congratulations, you really have nothing to hide and the word ‘privacy’ means nothing to you. But if you answer so much as ‘no’ to any one of those or to any bit of information that you yourself come up with that you’d rather not share with the world then you too value privacy.

And if you’re not content with living in a world where all of that data is public then you’d better stop repeating that silly mantra ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear’, even if instead of death or identity theft your problems might merely be those of inconvenience or embarrassment when your data gets re-purposed in ways that you could not imagine when you sent it out in the world in a careless manner, and when you helped erode the concept of privacy as a great good that needs to be protected rather than sacrificed on the altar of commerce or of national security (especially from some ill defined bogey man, such as the terrorists).

Of course, no one is willing to reveal all of the information mentioned. The problem is that this conclusion suggests that privacy is good as an end, while his argument merely shows that privacy is good as a means to preventing other evils. The problem with the Amsterdam registry was not that it was a bad thing, but that men were able to use it for bad things. Essentially privacy means that certain information is not available to most people, and it would be strange to assert that ignorance is good in itself. If anything, it is a necessary evil. This is not just a technicality. Considering privacy to be a good in itself has actual harmful consequences such as the European right to be forgotten. Rather than seeing privacy as a great good to be protected, we should see it as a necessary evil which hopefully will someday diminish to the degree that other ways are found to prevent men from using information for evil purposes.