The Sun and The Bat

Aristotle begins Book II of the Metaphysics in this way:

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.

Perhaps, too, as difficulties are of two kinds, the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us. For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.

I have a slight feeling of uncertainty about the argument I made yesterday. I do not see any flaw in the argument, and it seems to me that it works. But the uncertain feeling remains. This suggests that “the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us,” and that the reason for the feeling is that “as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”

Should I dismiss this feeling? One could argue that such feelings result from the imagination or from custom, so that if we do not see any flaw in the argument, we should just try to get over such feelings.

I think this would be a mistake, if the meaning is that one should try to get over it without making some other kind of progress first. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates talks about the fact that someone just learning something does not yet possess it in an entirely clear way:

Soc. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno’s slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

Soc. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Men. Yes, they were all his own.

Soc. And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Men. True.

Soc. But still he had in him those notions of his-had he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Men. He has.

Soc. And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Men. I dare say.

The boy at first possesses the idea that the double square is the square on the diagonal as something which has “just been stirred up in him, as in a dream,” rather than in a clear way. And this is appropriate, because as we seen earlier, people can make mistakes even in mathematics. One reason that the boy needs to be “frequently asked the same questions, in different forms,” is that by doing this he will become much more sure that he has not been misled by the argument.

There is at least one objective sign that there may be a flaw in my argument from yesterday, namely the fact that it does not appear to be an argument that anyone has made previously, at least as far as I know. It may be implicit both in the theology of St. Thomas and in that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the discussion of the distinction between the persons of the Trinity as a source for the distinction of creation from Creator, but it does not appear to have been made explicitly. In general I think it is a mistake to ignore such a feeling of uncertainty, just as it would be a mistake for the boy to ignore the dreamlike character of his knowledge. That feeling means something. It may not mean anything about the facts, as Aristotle says, but it means that there is something lacking in my understanding. And if I manage to banish the feeling, to “just get over it,” that does not necessarily mean that I have actually cured that lack in my understanding. It may be present just as much as before.

This is similar to the situation where someone observes some evidence against what he currently believes to be true. His “gut feeling” will tell him that it is something that stands against what he believes, but he may attempt to remove that feeling by fitting it into the context of his belief. However, even if his explanation is correct, even if his estimate of the prior probability is mistaken, his original feeling was not meaningless. In almost every case, it really was evidence against his position.

When we have a conclusion and we want to make an argument for it, whether that is because we suspect that the conclusion is true and want to settle the matter, or because we simply want the conclusion to be true, there is a danger of claiming to know for sure that an argument works without really understanding it. And this danger seems to be especially serious when one is speaking about God or the first principles of things, because they are like the blaze of day compared to the eyes of bats. For example, I commented on a recent post by James Chastek because it appears to me that he is trying to take a shortcut, that he is trying to avoid the hard work of actually understanding. I have not yet continued that discussion because I suspect that neither he nor I actually understand the argument that he is making, and I would prefer to understand it better before continuing the discussion.

Do not ignore such vague feelings. Do not dismiss them as “just the imagination,” do not try to “just get over it.” They are telling you something, and often something important.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Sun and The Bat

  1. […] Why do I use the thoughts of others rather than putting things in my own words? There are a number of reasons. It is very practical. It is much easier to compose a long blog post using quotations, while it takes a lot of time and energy to write everything yourself. And the idea of originality here is not really relevant. For as Qoheleth says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Most of the positions argued on this blog have been argued by others, and there is nothing surprising about this. In addition, insofar as a new contribution is possible, one can do this by organizing the thoughts of others, just as Socrates teaches the boy by helping him organize his thoughts.  […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s