Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Regress

Someone might respond to what I have said about progress in the following way:

So how come you talk about progress in technology and progress in truth, but do not talk about the progress of culture? Is it not because as soon as one considers the idea, it constitutes the refutation of your arguments? Consider 4’33”, or much of modern art in general. Or again, consider the liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council. Nor are these issues limited to artistic matters, since we could mention many matters of morality, or various cultural institutions. It is not even necessary to mention examples, so obvious all of this is, once one even considers the idea of the progress or regress of culture.

There is some truth to this, and it is worthy of serious consideration.

Patience, Truth, and Progress

If the Jehovah’s Witnesses are impatient with respect to truth, why do they nonetheless manage to advance in the knowledge of truth?

Our story about Peter, as a morality tale, is a bit more absolute than reality often is. Disordered behavior will more often than not produce disordered consequences, but the details will vary from case to case. Most cases of impatient driving do not in fact result in death, and most of the time the driver will still in fact get to his destination. There may however be other bad consequences, as the unnecessary annoyance and inconvenience posed to other drivers, the growth of the driver’s bad driving habits, and so on.

In a similar way, impatience with respect to truth will tend to have bad consequences, but the details will vary from case to case. In most cases those consequences may include detrimental effects relative to the knowledge of truth, but they will not necessarily completely impede the knowledge of truth, just as bad driving does not necessarily prevent one from reaching the destination.

In the case of the Witnesses, we noted that their progress seems laughably slow. It would be reasonable to attribute this slowness to the impatience in question, while the general fact of progress can be attributed to the general causes of such progress.

Impatiently adopting an excessively detailed view will slow a person’s advance in truth in a number of ways. In the first place, such a view will very likely be false, just as the detailed predictions of the Witnesses turned out to be false. And falsehood of course impedes the knowledge of truth first by excluding the truth opposite to the falsehood. Likewise, falsehood impedes the knowledge of truth in other ways, because when we learn anything, we learn it in the context of everything else that we know. Insofar as what we think we know includes some things that are untrue, these untrue aspects will tend to distort our view of the new things that we are learning.

Second, there are particular effects of jumping to untrue conclusions that are excessively detailed. Suppose I say, “There will be a nuclear war beginning on March 3rd, 2017.” If I claim to possess a high level of confidence about this, then I must claim an even higher level of confidence that there will be a major war in 2017, and a still higher confidence that there will be one or more major disasters in the next few years. This is for the reason discussed some days ago, namely that the more general claims must be more known and more certain, and as a matter of probability theory, the numerical probability assigned to the more general claim must be higher than that assigned to the more specific claim.

Now suppose, as is likely, that no nuclear war begins on March 3rd, 2017. What will I conclude? It might be reasonable, in some sense, for me to conclude that I was mistaken about the more general things as well, and not only about the date of March 3rd. But I was very, very confident about the more general things, significantly more so than about the date of March 3rd. And given that my original assignment of March 3rd proceeded from impatience for specific knowledge, a more likely result is that I will now say that the war will begin on September 17th, or something like that. And even after this does not happen, I will be quite likely to say, “Well, maybe I was wrong about the details. But there is still likely to be a major war before the end of the year, or anyway in the next few years.” And this will be because of my greater certainty about the more general claims. And this greater certainty itself arose from my impatience for specific knowledge, not from a careful analysis of the facts.

Patience and Truth

When we consider truth as a good to be sought, the virtue of patience is related to this good in the same way that it is related to other goods. One must seek the truth with an “equal mind,” as St. Augustine says, in order that an unequal mind will not lead one to attempt shortcuts that will not in fact lead towards the truth, but away from it.

As an illustration, we can consider this in relation to our previous discussion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We can argue that impatience is involved in their claims, and in several different ways. This will not apply of necessity, of course, to every individual who makes such claims. An individual Witness may simply believe what he has been told by the wisest people he knows, and this may be perfectly reasonable, without any sort of impatience. Nonetheless, I would argue that impatience is involved here in a kind of objective way, and almost certainly with respect to many individuals as well.

In the first place, consider the general claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place. This seems to go back to Nelson Barbour’s argument in his publication Herald of the Morning. Let us look at a few passages, taken from here.

In the book of Daniel, we find a concise history of the world. And those who will compare these prophecies with the facts in history, will find an antidote to infidelity.

That the prophecy was given prior to the Christian era, no one questions. And the evidence is abundant that it was written at about the close of the sixth century, B.C.

Now go with me over the world’s history, and compare it with the prophecy as found in Dan. 7, and then as an honest man, say if one doubt remains, as to its Divine origin.

The four great empires of the world were shown to Nebuchadnezzar in the form of a great image, or likeness of a man; but are here represented to Daniel, as four great wild beasts.

That Babylon, Medo-Persia, Grecia, and Rome, are the four great empires of the world, is known by the veriest schoolboy.

Babylon, founded by Nimrod, the grandson of Noah, was conquered by Cyrus, about 538 B.C. And the kingdom passed into the hands of Darius the Mede, who was father-in-law to Cyrus. And here, “the lion,” Babylon, gave place to “the bear,” Medo-Persia.

The second empire continued a little more than two hundred years, and was then conquered by Alexander the Great; who was the “first king” of the third universal empire; represented in the symbol, by the leopard.

This beast had “four wings,” and “four heads,” denoting a division of the kingdom into four parts, as we are informed.

At the death of Alexander, his four generals shared the kingdom between them. Cassander reigned in Greece, Lysimachus, in Thrace, Ptolemy in Egypt, and Seleucus, in Syria.

This quadrible empire continued about three hundred years, but was eventually subdued by the Romans, B.C. 30.

With the fourth empire, the prophecy enters into very minute detail. Its destructive character, its final division into ten parts, or “horns,” the coming up of another power, “diverse from all the others,” and which was to “wear out the saints of the Most High,” and continue for twelve hundred and sixty years to hold “times and laws,” and afterwards, undergo gradual consumption “unto the end.”

Rome conquered Grecia, and became a universal empire, at about 30 B.C. and so continued, until about the middle of the fifth century, when it was broken into ten fragments. And after that, came up this “little horn,” of which we mean to speak more particularly.

The papacy has its history and character so clearly and minutely recorded here, that we cannot be mistaken in the application.

This “little horn” comes up after the other ten, hence, after the middle of the fifth century. Since “the virgins have been slumbering and sleeping,” some of them have called this “little horn,” the whole eastern empire. But the eastern empire came up more than a hundred and fifty years before Rome was divided into ten parts.

This horn was to “speak great words, and wear out the saints, and think to change times and laws”; all of which was accomplished by the papacy, and not the eastern empire.

After Rome was divided into ten parts, we are to look for a “little horn, diverse from all the others.” The papacy exercised ecclesiastical, as well as civil power, hence, it was different “from all that were before it.” “He shall subdue three kingdoms.” The popes wear a tiara, or three crowned hat; and the map of the Papal States, as they existed a few years since, embraced the territory of three of the original divisions of the Roman empire, viz., Lombardy, the Exarch of Ravenna, and Romania. Sir Isaac Newton, in his dissertation on the Bishop Newton; the Encylopedia of the Royal Society of London for the diffusion of useful knowledge, John Down Dowling, in his History of the Papacy, and all other authorities, outside of certain Adventists, make this same statement in relation to the three horns that were plucked up by this little horn.

The next thing mentioned of the little horn is, “He shall speak great words against the Most High.” I need not stop here to tell you of the great words spoken by the papacy; its history is too well known. “He shall wear out the saints of the Most High.” This also is graven “in blood and flame, and sword and captivity,” on the pages of history. “He shall think to change times and laws, and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and the dividing of time.”

Mark the expression, “they, (times and laws) shall be given into his hands.” Who gave them? Let the Bible speak for itself. “These ten kings, … these have one mind, and shall give them power and strength unto the beast.” Rev. 17:12, 13.

Soon after the ten horns came up, they embraced the papal religion, and did “agree and give their kingdom to the beast” until the words of God, viz., “the forty and two months,” or “time, times, and the dividing of time,” was fulfilled.

Ok, you might say, all very well, but this all seems pretty debatable. But even if we assume that it is all correct, how is this supposed to show that apocalyptic events will soon take place? Patience. Barbour’s argument is not a short one.

When the Gothic power was broken in Italy, about A.D. 538, Rome ceased to have a king; and from that date, and for centuries after, the governing power in Rome was of a very mixed and confused character; so much so in fact, that it was difficult to trace its history.

“Times and laws shall be given into his hands, for a time, times, and the dividing of time.” (ver. 26.) The question here arises, why we assume that this period of time is twelve hundred and sixty years? And I shall answer very briefly.

This period occurs here, and in Dan. 12:7, and Rev. 12:14. In Rev. 12 it says, “The woman fled into the wilderness, … and they should feed her there for a thousand two hundred and three score days.” In verse 14 it declares, “She flew into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.” And in Rev. 13:5, we find this power, from which the true church, or “woman,” fled, was to continue forty and two months. In Dan. 11, the margin against verse 13 gives the Hebrew reading, of the meaning of “time,” “Heb. At the end of Times, even Years.” In Hebrew, when two “times,” or “years,” were spoken of, the plural was used, “times”; when more than two, the number was given. Hence, a literal rendering of the above text is, “for a year, two years, and the dividing of a year.” (Dan. 7:26.) This “dividing of a year,” leaves it a little obscure, but in Rev., these three expressions, “time, times, and a half,” “forty and two months,” “a thousand two hundred and three score days,” are used to measure the same period of time, and therefore, these periods must be synonymous. A year is twelve months, two years twenty-four months, and a half year, six months, and together, make the period of forty and two months. A Bible month is thirty days. (See Gen. 7:11.) Where the fountains of the great deep are broken up on the seventeenth day of the second month. And in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day, the ark rested on Mount Ararat. (Gen. 8:4.) “And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” (Gen. 7:24.) From the seventeenth day of the second month, to the seventeenth of the seventh month, is five months; and God said it was “a hundred and fifty days.” Five times thirty is a hundred and fifty. Thus we learn that a time, times, and the dividing of time, or half a time, as given in Dan. 12:7, is 1260 “days.”

A day, when used in prophecy as a symbol, represents a year. (See Ezek. 4:1-6.) But the best of all proof is, the prophecy has been so fulfilled.

In March, A.D. 538, the power of the Goths in Italy was broken; and somewhere about that time, probably near the end of that year, but we cannot determine the month, the provinces of Italy changed their allegiance from the Goths to the Catholic party. “The provinces of Italy had embraced the party of the emperor,” says Gibbon. (See Gib. 1824, page 707.)

Somewhere, then, in the year 538, the provinces, civil power became catholic; and within “one hour,” prophetic time, or fifteen days, (as we shall show on another occasion) from that change of allegiance, the last of the “ten kings” joined the confederacy, and “agreed and gave their power and strength unto the beast.” Here, then, somewhere in the year 538, the papacy began to exercise civil power. And when that church became a civil power, it was numbered among Gentile governments, and became a “horn,” or “beast,” in prophetic language.

Twelve hundred and sixty years from that date the prophecy declares, that “judgment should sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it, unto the end.” (Verse 26.) Twelve hundred and sixty years from 538 ended in 1798; and you all know what happened to the papacy. I need not quote history; these facts which I have given, are the outline facts with which all students of history are familiar, and all that is required to establish this application, with absolute certainty, viz. 538, and 1798.

The papacy is organized today — men, women and children, over twelve years of age, all over the world — for the final death struggle. Labor is organized against capital; the Internationals against governments. There are startling events at hand, a time of trouble such as this world has never experienced.

“And the saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.” 1335 prophetic days from where the 1260 began, allowing for certain fractions of a year, which will be made clear in another article, bring us to the end of the world’s history; and complete all the symbols as God has drawn them. This is as certain, and can be made as clear, as is the present application of this prophecy. Is there not, therefore, a plausible argument, at least, that we are on the eve of the Gospel dispensation, and the morning of the next, the glorious age? Then, friends, you who have been waiting long for the coming Bridegroom, take heart, and you who are unprepared for these events, get ready, THE GREAT JUDGMENT DAY IS AT HAND!

I am sure that the reader will be happy to know that I do not intend to include Barbour’s argument for the “1335 prophetic days.” However, his claim here is that the end of the world must come 1335 years after the year 538, or in 1873-1874. His text is written in January 1874, so he is predicting the end of the world within the next twelve months.

One might feel at a loss at how to respond to an argument such as the above: and this is because it is more a series of claims than a series of arguments in the first place. For example, Barbour takes it as obvious that it is the papacy that should be said to “speak great words, and wear out the saints, and think to change times and laws.” No argument is made for this, nor even historical illustrations given of what he is talking about. Perhaps his most important claim is that the papacy became a civil power in 538 and ceased to be one in 1798, and that this reveals a period of 1260 years that corresponds to the prophecy. But it is easy to see that both parts of this claim, both regarding the year 538 and regarding the year 1798, are very questionable interpretations of history, and can represent nothing like the absolute certainty that he says we can have about this part of his interpretation. But even if he was definitely right about his interpretation of the history of the papacy, the period of 1260 years could easily be a complete coincidence, relative to his interpretation of the prophecy. It is evident that many, many things have taken place exactly 1260 years apart; in fact as many as one pleases to find. And of course the fact that the world did not end in 1874 should call into question the whole of his argument, not only the part about the 1335 years.

In any case, Barbour’s claims are rather different from those which the Jehovah’s Witnesses built on them. Barbour ends his article by saying that there is at least “a plausible argument” that the world is about to end, which one finds a bit surprising given that throughout he repeatedly says that his interpretations are beyond reasonable doubt.

Given the objective weakness of Barbour’s argument, a weakness that we can easily discern even without imputing any particular motive, even C.S. Lewis might agree that it would not be absurd to suggest that Barbour is in fact motivated. In fact, the motive is itself not hard to discern. The coming age is “the glorious age.” The sooner, the better, then.

If this is the case, it suggests that the original claim that “apocalyptic events will soon take place,” is an impatient claim, in the most obvious way, namely that the claim is made because of the desire that apocalyptic events take place, and that they take place as soon as possible.

But impatience is involved in another way as well, one that applies more often to other situations besides the particular case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A few days ago we discussed the fact that knowledge proceeds from being vague and general to being distinct and more particular, and that the latter knowledge is more perfect.

Now consider the impatience of Peter. In his haste to get home, he omits the good that is needed, namely careful driving, and so fails to get home. In a similar way, someone seeks the truth impatiently who attempts to see the truth in too much detail, too quickly. Patience is needed. As Aristotle says, “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.” When one steps outside on a bright and sunny day, it is often difficult to discern the details of things at first. But wait a while, and the details will become clear. On the other hand, if we step outside and attempt to immediately describe every detail, before things have cleared up, we will almost inevitably be mistaken.

It is easy enough to see this kind of impatience in the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They repeatedly make very detailed claims about the soon-to-occur apocalyptic events, ones that by the very fact that they do not happen, reveal that they are beyond the current ability of the Witnesses to know the truth. Yet because a detailed knowledge would be a more perfect knowledge, impatience for knowledge can lead someone to make such claims before the right time, and thereby lead them away from the truth, just as Peter fails to get home.


St. Thomas describes the virtue of patience:

I answer that, As stated above (II-II:123:1), the moral virtues are directed to the good, inasmuch as they safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions. Now among the passions sorrow is strong to hinder the good of reason, according to 2 Corinthians 7:10, “The sorrow of the world worketh death,” and Sirach 30:25, “Sadness hath killed many, and there is no profit in it.” Hence the necessity for a virtue to safeguard the good of reason against sorrow, lest reason give way to sorrow: and this patience does. Wherefore Augustine says (De Patientia ii): “A man’s patience it is whereby he bears evil with an equal mind,” i.e. without being disturbed by sorrow, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things.” It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.

This brings to mind things like a martyr being afflicted by others for the truth that he holds and enduring this steadfastly, but in fact it applies well even to the ordinary idea of patience, according to which, for example, we might say that Ray Kurzweil’s impatience for technological progress leads him to false opinions about current historical trends.

We can illustrate this with a little story. Peter, impatient to get home from work, exceeds the speed limit and weaves in and out of traffic. Minutes before getting home, he hits a slippery patch on the road. His car goes off the road, ramming a tree and killing him.

Despite being nothing but a story, it is one that has without a doubt been played out in real life with minor or major variations again and again. We can apply the saying of St. Augustine quoted by St. Thomas. Peter’s patience would consist in “bearing evil with an equal mind,” that is, enduring the fact that he is not home yet without disturbance, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things,” that is, since his disturbed and unequal mind leads him to abandon the goods, that is, the ordered manner of driving, whereby he may advance to better things, that is, actually to get home.

Patience is rightly thought to be related to the virtue of humility. One who judges rightly about his place in the order of things will understand that it is natural in this order that what is best tends to come last. The good wine is served last. Thus such a person should endure without disturbance the lack that comes earlier, in order not to abandon the good by which he might achieve the good that comes later.

Developing a False Doctrine

As documented here by Paul Grundy, the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly made claims about the end of the world or other apocalyptic events, predicting that they would happen on specific dates. Thus for example they said in 1894, “But bear in mind that the end of 1914 is not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble.”And again in 1920:

What, then, should we expect to take place? The chief thing to be restored is the human race to life; and since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favour, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death , being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth.

Needless to say, these things did not happen. These are only a few examples of false predictions made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To most people, this process seems ridiculous, and to some extent it is. Nonetheless, in a surprising way it is an example of progress in truth. With each failed prophecy, the Witnesses learn something new: first they learn that the world will not end in 1914, then they learn that it will not end or be remarkably restored in 1925, and so on.

The reason this seems ridiculous is that we believe that they should be learning something more. They should be learning that it is false that “apocalyptic events will soon take place and it is within our power to determine in advance their specific timing.” And yes, it would be reasonable for them to learn this. But even if they do not, they are still learning something.

Why do they persist in making the claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place, and that they can determine their timing in advance, even after each particular case is falsified? This is related to our previous post. Their general claim, precisely insofar as it is general, is necessarily more likely, and so “more known”, as it were, than each of the specific predictions. It is as if one were to see something in the distance and to believe, “it is a man,” but then upon getting a bit closer, one says, “wait, it doesn’t look quite like a man, it must be an ape.” The more general belief that it is an animal persists.

The Witnesses may be advancing in truth more slowly than we think that they should, but they are advancing. And ultimately there is no reason to expect this to end with the learning of particulars alone. In fact, towards the end of his article, Grundy says, “Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Watchtower Society refrained from issuing specific dates for Armageddon, but still has not stopped implying dates and time frames.” In other words, they continue to maintain that “apocalyptic events will soon take place,” but they are beginning to conclude that it is untrue that “we can determine their specific timing in advance.” Once again, this is because the claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place is necessarily more likely and “more known” than the combined claim that such events will take place and that one can determine their timing in advance.

The More Known and the Conjunction Fallacy

St. Thomas explains in what sense we know the universal before the particular, and in what sense the particular before the universal:

In our knowledge there are two things to be considered.

First, that intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter.

Secondly, we must consider that our intellect proceeds from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality; and every power thus proceeding from potentiality to actuality comes first to an incomplete act, which is the medium between potentiality and actuality, before accomplishing the perfect act. The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly. A thing thus imperfectly known, is known partly in act and partly in potentiality, and hence the Philosopher says (Phys. i, 1), that “what is manifest and certain is known to us at first confusedly; afterwards we know it by distinguishing its principles and elements.” Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly. In this way we can have knowledge not only of the universal whole, which contains parts potentially, but also of the integral whole; for each whole can be known confusedly, without its parts being known. But to know distinctly what is contained in the universal whole is to know the less common, as to “animal” indistinctly is to know it as “animal”; whereas to know “animal” distinctly is know it as “rational” or “irrational animal,” that is, to know a man or a lion: therefore our intellect knows “animal” before it knows man; and the same reason holds in comparing any more universal idea with the less universal.

Moreover, as sense, like the intellect, proceeds from potentiality to act, the same order of knowledge appears in the senses. For by sense we judge of the more common before the less common, in reference both to place and time; in reference to place, when a thing is seen afar off it is seen to be a body before it is seen to be an animal; and to be an animal before it is seen to be a man, and to be a man before it seen to be Socrates or Plato; and the same is true as regards time, for a child can distinguish man from not man before he distinguishes this man from that, and therefore “children at first call men fathers, and later on distinguish each one from the others” (Phys. i, 1). The reason of this is clear: because he who knows a thing indistinctly is in a state of potentiality as regards its principle of distinction; as he who knows “genus” is in a state of potentiality as regards “difference.” Thus it is evident that indistinct knowledge is midway between potentiality and act.

We must therefore conclude that knowledge of the singular and individual is prior, as regards us, to the knowledge of the universal; as sensible knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge. But in both sense and intellect the knowledge of the more common precedes the knowledge of the less common.

The universal is known from the particular in the sense that we learn the nature of the universal from the experience of particulars. But both in regard to the universal and in regard to the particular, our knowledge is first vague and confused, and becomes more distinct as it is perfected. In St. Thomas’s example, one can see that something is a body before noticing that it is an animal, and an animal before noticing that it is a man. The thing that might be confusing here is that the more certain knowledge is also the less perfect knowledge: looking at the thing in the distance, it is more certain that it is some kind of body, but it is more perfect to know that it is a man.

Insofar as probability theory is a formalization of degrees of belief, the same thing is found, and the same confusion can occur. Objectively, the more general claim should always be understood to be more probable, but the more specific claim, representing what would be more perfect knowledge, can seem more explanatory, and therefore might appear more likely. This false appearance is known as the conjunction fallacy. Thus for example as I continue to add to a blog post, the post might become more convincing. But in fact the chance that I am making a serious error in the post can only increase, not decrease, with every additional sentence.