Belief without certainty

For I ask, if what is not known must not be believed, in what way may children do service to their parents, and love with mutual affection those whom they believe not to be their parents? For it cannot, by any means, be known by reason. But the authority of the mother comes in, that it be believed of the father; but of the mother it is usually not the mother that is believed, but midwives, nurses, servants. For she, from whom a son may be stolen and another put in his place, may she not being deceived deceive? Yet we believe, and believe without any doubt, what we confess we cannot know. For who but must see, that unless it be so, filial affection, the most sacred bond of the human race, is violated by extreme pride of wickedness? For what madman even would think him to be blamed who discharged the duties that were due to those whom he believed to be his parents, although they were not so? Who, on the other hand, would not judge him to deserve banishment, who failed to love those who were perhaps his true parents, through fear lest he should love pretended. Many things may be alleged, whereby to show that nothing at all of human society remains safe, if we shall determine to believe nothing, which we cannot grasp by full apprehension.

St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Profit of Believing, 26

Schizophrenia and Eastern religions

A Buddhist Zen master who lives in Tokyo wishes to fly to Kyoto on a private plane. When he arrives at the airport, he is offered two planes: one that is faster but aeronautically questionable, and one that is slower but aeronautically sound. He is informed by the airport authorities that the faster plane violates some of the basic principles of aeronautical mechanics, and the slower plane does not.

The aeronautical or technological deficiencies of the faster plane represent underlying mistakes in physics. The Zen master, in his teaching, asks his disciples questions the right answers to which require them to embrace contradictions. To do so is the path to wisdom about reality, which has contradictions at its core. But the Zen master does t waver from upholding this teaching about reality while, at the same time, he chooses the slower, aeronautically sounder and safer plane because it accords with a technology and a physics that makes correct judgments about a physical world that abhors contradictions.

If there is scientific truth in technology and physics, then the unity of the truth should require the Zen master to acknowledge that his choice of the slower but safer plane means that he repudiates his Zen doctrine about the wisdom of embracing contradictions.

He does not do so and remains schizophrenic, with the truth of Zen doctrine and the truth of technology and physics in logic-tight compartments. On what grounds or for what reasons does he do this if not for the psychological comfort derived from keeping the incompatible “truths” in logic-tight compartments? Can it be that the Zen master has a different meaning for the word “truth” when he persists in regarding the Zen doctrine as true even though it would appear to be irreconcilable with the truth of technology and physics he has accepted in choosing the slower plane? Can it be that this persistence in retaining the Zen doctrine does not derive from its being “true” in the logical sense of truth, but rather in a sense of “true” that identifies it with being psychological “useful” or “therapeutic”?

In other words, Zen Buddhism as a religion is believed by this Zen master because of its psychological usefulness in producing in its believers a state of peace or harmony. In my judgment, this view of the matter doe snot reduce or remove the schizophrenia of Zen Buddhism.

Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion, pp. 75-6

All men are mortal?

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, ch. VI

Review: Critical Thinking –2002 publication.

Critical Thinking --2002 publication.
Critical Thinking –2002 publication. by Kevin Possin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a good, fairly short introduction to logic. The author does a decent job of introducing the reader to the basics of the subject. I have only three complaints:

1. The author’s liberal positions on nearly everything shine through in the examples he uses and are an obnoxious distraction. He doesn’t even try to be impartial and irritates throughout.

2. The text was an e-text originally and then put into book form. No effort was made, apparently, to edit the text appropriately when this was done, and so throughout the text he references reading the text on your computer and references his book as an e-text. That’s just laziness.

3. The author’s consistent use of internet discussion board shorthand like “BTW” and smiley faces “:-)” is distracting, unnecessary, and unprofessional. It doesn’t make him seem cool and up-to-date; it makes him seem pathetic and out-of-touch.

While the text does a good job of introducing its topic, I would not recommend it for these reasons. There are others texts out there that do a similar or better quality job of introducing the reader to logic and yet do not have the annoying distractions this book has.

View all my reviews

Sometimes 2 + 2 = 5

Gentlemen, I am tormented by questions; answer them for me. You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity. You think, gentlemen, perhaps that I am mad? Allow me to defend myself. I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering — that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead. But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the “direct” practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it, and that the chief thing is to save the well-conducted child from despising engineering, and so giving way to the fatal idleness, which, as we all know, is the mother of all the vices. Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that! But on that point I want to say a couple of words myself. May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters; perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it, but will leave it, when completed, for the use of les animaux domestiques — such as the ants, the sheep, and so on. Now the ants have quite a different taste. They have a marvellous edifice of that pattern which endures for ever — the ant-heap.

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant-heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all. But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive — in other words, only what is conducive to welfare — is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for … my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the “Palace of Crystal” it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “palace of crystal” if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, ch. IX