Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.




Zeal for Form, But Not According to Knowledge

Some time ago I discussed the question of whether the behavior of a whole should be predictable from the behavior of the parts, without fully resolving it. I promised at the time to revisit the question later, and this is the purpose of the present post.

In the discussion of Robin Hanson’s book Age of Em, we looked briefly at his account of the human mind. Let us look at a more extended portion of his argument about the mind:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

The point of Robin’s argument is to take a particular position in regard to the question we are revisiting in this post: everything that is done by wholes is predictable from the behavior of the parts. The argument is simply a more extended form of a point I made in the earlier post, namely that there is no known case where the behavior of a whole is known not to be predictable in such a way, and many known cases where it is certainly predictable in this way.

The title of the present post of course refers us to this earlier post. In that post I discussed the tendency to set first and second causes in opposition, and noted that the resulting false dichotomy leads to two opposite mistakes, namely the denial of a first cause on one hand, and to the assertion that the first cause does or should work without secondary causes on the other.

In the same way, I say it is a false dichotomy to set the work of form in opposition with the work of matter and disposition. Rather, they produce the same thing, both according to being and according to activity, but in different respects. If this is the case, it will be necessarily true from the nature of things that the behavior of a whole is predictable from the behavior of the parts, but this will happen in a particular way.

I mentioned an example of the same false dichotomy in the post on Robin’s book. Here again is his argument:

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

I am currently awake and conscious, hearing the sounds of my keyboard as I type and the music playing in the background. Robin’s argument is something like this: why did I type the previous sentence? Is it because I am in fact awake and conscious and actually heard these sounds? If in principle it is predictable that I would have typed that, based on the simple interactions of simple parts, that seems to be an entirely different explanation. So either one might be the case or the other, but not both.

We have seen this kind of argument before. C.S. Lewis made this kind of argument when he said that thought must have reasons only, and no causes. Similarly, there is the objection to the existence of God, “But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist.” Just as in those cases we have a false dichotomy between the first cause and secondary causes, and between the final cause and efficient causes, so here we have a false dichotomy between form and matter.

Let us consider this in a simpler case. We earlier discussed the squareness of a square. Suppose someone attempted to apply Robin’s argument to squares. The equivalent argument would say this: all conclusions about squares can be proved from premises about the four lines that make it up and their relationships. So what use is this extra squareness? We might as well assume it does not exist, since it cannot explain anything.

In order to understand this one should consider why we need several kinds of cause in the first place. To assign a cause is just to give the origin of a thing in a way that explains it, while explanation has various aspects. In the linked post, we divided causes into two, namely intrinsic and extrinsic, and then divided each of these into two. But consider what would happen if we did not make the second division. In this case, there would be two causes of a thing: matter subject to form, and agent intending an end. We can see from this how the false dichotomies arise: all the causality of the end must be included in some way in the agent, since the end causes by informing the agent, and all the causality of the form must be included in some way in the matter, since the form causes by informing the matter.

In the case of the square, even the linked post noted that there was an aspect of the square that could not be derived from its properties: namely, the fact that a square is one figure, rather than simply many lines. This is the precise effect of form in general: to make a thing be what it is.

Consider Alexander Pruss’s position on artifacts. He basically asserted that artifacts do not truly exist, on the grounds that they seem to be lacking a formal cause. In this way, he says, they are just a collection of parts, just as someone might suppose that a square is just a collection of lines, and that there is no such thing as squareness. My response there was the same as my response about the square: saying that this is just a collection cannot explain why a square is one figure, nor can the same account explain the fact that artifacts do have a unity of some kind. Just as the denial of squareness would mean the denial of the existence of a unified figure, so the denial of chairness would mean the denial of the existence of chairs. Unlike Sean Carroll, Pruss seems even to recognize that this denial follows from his position, even if he is ambivalent about it at times.

Hanson’s argument about the human mind is actually rather similar to Pruss’s argument about artifacts, and to Carroll’s argument about everything. The question of whether or not the fact that I am actually conscious influences whether I say that I am, is a reference to the idea of a philosophical zombie. Robin discusses this idea more directly in another post:

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

These claims all follow from our very standard and well-established info theory. We get info about things by interacting with them, so that our states become correlated with the states of those things. But by assumption this hypothesized extra “feeling” state never interacts with anything. The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel. You would have been just as likely to say it if it were not true. What could possibly be the point of hypothesizing and forming beliefs about states about which one can never get any info?

We noted the unresolved tension in Sean Carroll’s position. The eliminativists are metaphysically correct, he says, but they are mistaken to draw the conclusion that the things of our common experience do not exist. The problem is that given that he accepts the eliminativist metaphysics, he can have no justification for rejecting their conclusions. We can see the same tension in Robin Hanson’s account of consciousness and philosophical zombies. For example, why does he say that they do not “make sense,” rather than asking whether or not they can exist and why or why not?

Let us think about this in more detail. And to see more clearly the issues involved, let us consider a simpler case. Take the four chairs in Pruss’s office. Is it possible that one of them is a zombie?

What would this even mean? In the post on the relationship of form and reality, we noted that asking whether something has a form is very close to the question of whether something is real. I really have two hands, Pruss says, if my hands have forms. And likewise chairs are real chairs if they have the form of a chair, and if they do not, they are not real in the first place, as Pruss argues is the case.

The zombie question about the chair would then be this: is it possible that one of the apparent chairs, physically identical to a real chair, is yet not a real chair, while the three others are real?

We should be able to understand why someone would want to say that the question “does not make sense” here. What would it even be like for one of the chairs not to be a real chair, especially if it is posited to be identical to all of the others? In reality, though, the question does make sense, even if we answer that the thing cannot happen. In this case it might actually be more possible than in other cases, since artifacts are in part informed by human intentions. But possible or not, the question surely makes sense.

Let us consider the case of natural things. Consider the zombie oak tree: it is physically identical to an oak tree, but it is not truly alive. It appears to grow, but this is just the motion of particles. There are three positions someone could hold: no oak trees are zombie oaks, since all are truly alive and grow; all oak trees are zombies, since all are mere collections of particles; and some are alive and grow, while others are zombies, being mere collections of particles.

Note that the question does indeed make sense. It is hard to see why anyone would accept the third position, but if the first and second positions make sense, then the third does as well. It has an intelligible content, even if it is one that we have no good arguments for accepting. The argument that it does not make sense is basically the claim that the first and second positions are not distinct positions: they do not say different things, but the same thing. Thus the the third would “not make sense” insofar as it assumes that the first and second positions are distinct positions.

Why would someone suppose that the first and second positions are not distinct? This is basically Sean Carroll’s position, since he tries to say both that eliminativists are correct about what exists, but incorrect in denying the existence of common sense things like oak trees. It is useful to say, “oak trees are real,” he says, and therefore we will say it, but we do not mean to say something different about reality than the eliminativists who say that “oak trees are not real but mere collections of particles.”

But this is wrong. Carroll’s position is inconsistent in virtually the most direct possible way. Either oak trees are real or they are not; and if they are real, then they are not mere collections of particles. So both the first and second positions are meaningful, and consequently also the third.

The second and third positions are false, however, and the meaningfulness of this becomes especially clear when we speak of the human case. It obviously does make sense to ask whether other human beings are conscious, and this is simply to ask whether their apparent living activities, such as speaking and thinking, are real living activities, or merely apparent ones: perhaps the thing is making sounds, but it is not truly speaking or thinking.

Let us go back to the oak tree for a moment. The zombie oak would be one that is not truly living, but its activities, apparently full of life, are actually lifeless. In order to avoid this possibility, and out of a zeal for form which is not according to knowledge, some assert that the activities of an oak cannot be understood in terms of the activities of the parts. There is a hint of this, perhaps, in this remark by James Chastek:

Consciousness is just the latest field where we are protesting that something constitutes a specific difference from some larger genus, but if it goes the way the others have gone, in fifty years no one will even remember the controversy or bother to give the fig-leaf explanations of it being emergent or reductive. No one will remember that there is a difference to explain. Did anyone notice in tenth-grade biology that life was explained entirely in terms of non-living processes? No. There was nothing to explain since nothing was noticed.

Chastek does not assert that life cannot be “explained entirely in terms of non-living processes,” in the manner of tenth-grade biology, but he perhaps would prefer that it could not be so explained. And the reason for this would be the idea that if everything the living thing does can be explained in terms of the parts, then oak trees are zombies after all.

But this idea is mistaken. Look again at the square: the parts explain everything, except the fact that the figure is one figure, and a square. The form of a square is indeed needed, precisely in order that the thing will actually be a whole and a square.

Likewise with the oak. If an oak tree is made out of parts, then since activity follows being, it should be unsurprising that in some sense its activities themselves will be made out of parts, namely the activities of its parts. But the oak is real, and its activities are real. And just as oaks really exist, so they really live and grow; but just as the living oak has parts which are not alive in themselves, such as elements, so the activity of growth contains partial activities which are not living activities in themselves. What use is the form of an oak, then? It makes the tree really an oak and really alive; and it makes its activities living activities such as growth, rather than being merely a collection of non-living activities.

We can look at human beings in the same way, but I will leave the details of this for another post, since this one is long enough already.

Semi-Parmenidean Heresy

In his book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll describes the view which he calls “poetic naturalism”:

As knowledge generally, and science in particular, have progressed over the centuries, our corresponding ontologies have evolved from quite rich to relatively sparse. To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.

We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons-exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.

It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.

That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.

There is something essentially pre-Socratic about this thinking. When Carroll talks about “fundamentally different things,” he means things that differ according to their basic elements. But at the same kind the implication is that only things that differ in this way are “fundamentally” different in the sense of being truly or really different. But this is a quite different sense of “fundamental.”

I suggested in the linked post that even Thales might not really have believed that material causes alone sufficiently explained reality. Nonetheless, there was a focus on the material cause as being the truest explanation. We see the same focus here in Sean Carroll. When he says, “There isn’t some primordial shipness,” he is thinking of shipness as something that would have to be a material cause, if it existed.

Carroll proceeds to contrast his position with eliminativism:

One benefit of a rich ontology is that it’s easy to say what is “real”- every category describes something real. In a sparse ontology, that’s not so clear. Should we count only the underlying stuff of the world as real, and all the different ways we have of dividing it up and talking about it as merely illusions? That’s the most hard-core attitude we could take to reality, sometimes called eliminativism, since its adherents like nothing better than to go around eliminating this or that concept from our list of what is real. For an eliminativist, the question “Which Captian Kirk is the real one?” gets answered by, “Who cares? People are illusions. They’re just fictitious stories we tell about the one true world.”

I’m going to argue for a different view: our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world- useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality- deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world, according to which we can say things like “There are things called planets, and something called the sun, all of which move through something called space, and planets do something called orbiting the sun, and those orbits describe a particular shape in space called an ellipse.” That’s basically Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, developed after Copernicus argued for the sun being at the center of the solar system but before Isaac Newton explained it all in terms of the force of gravity. Today, we would say that Kepler’s theory is fairly useful in certain circumstances, but it’s not as useful as Newton’s, which in turn isn’t as broadly useful as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

There are some good things about what Carroll is doing here. He is right of course to insist that the things of common experience are “real.” He is also right to see some relationship between saying that something is real and saying that talking about it is useful, but this is certainly worth additional consideration, and he does not really do it justice.

The problematic part is that, on account of his pre-Socratic tendencies, he is falling somewhat into the error of Parmenides. The error of Parmenides was to suppose that being can be, and can be thought and said, in only one way. Carroll, on account of confusing the various meanings of “fundamental,” supposes that being can be in only one way, namely as something elemental, but that it can be thought and said in many ways.

The problem with this, apart from the falsity of asserting that being can be in only one way, is that no metaphysical account is given whereby it would be reasonable to say that being can be thought and said in many ways, given that it can be in only one way. Carroll is trying to point in that direction by saying that our common speech is useful, so it must be about real things; but the eliminativist would respond, “Useful to whom? The things that you are saying this is useful for are illusions and do not exist. So even your supposed usefulness does not exist.” And Carroll will have no valid response, because he has already admitted to agreeing with the eliminativist on a metaphysical level.

The correct answer to this is the one given by Aristotle. Material causes do not sufficiently explain reality, but other causes are necessary as well. But this means that the eliminativist is mistaken on a metaphysical level, not merely in his way of speaking.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.


Knowing Knowing is Secondary

It would be a mistake in general to suppose that one could derive all important truths from a few first principles, but one particular way to fall into this error would be to think that one can or should derive metaphysics or other branches of scientific or philosophical knowledge from epistemology. One reason for this is implied by the previous post: insofar as we come to know knowledge from a knowledge of the known or knowable, it is never possible to begin by thinking about knowledge, but one must begin by thinking about things.

Descartes’s discussion of the scenario of the evil demon appears to be an example of this error, insofar as he seems to suggest that his first knowledge is of the fact that he is thinking something. In fact, it is quite evident that one must know oneself in order to have the thought, “I am thinking,” and that one would never think about thinking without first thinking about something else.

Still, Descartes’s adoption of this error is only partial. He does realize that this is not the natural order of coming to know. Thus in the Synopsis of his Meditations he says:

Finally in the Sixth I distinguish the action of the understanding from that of the imagination; the marks by which this distinction is made are described. I here show that the mind of man is really distinct from the body, and at the same time that the two are so closely joined together that they form, so to speak, a single thing. All the errors which proceed from the senses are then surveyed, while the means of avoiding them are demonstrated, and finally all the reasons from which we may deduce the existence of material things are set forth. Not that I judge them to be very useful in establishing that which they prove, to wit, that there is in truth a world, that men possess bodies, and other such things which never have been doubted by anyone of sense; but because in considering these closely we come to see that they are neither so strong nor so evident as those arguments which lead us to the knowledge of our mind and of God; so that these last must be the most certain and most evident facts which can fall within the cognizance of the human mind. And this is the whole matter that I have tried to prove in these Meditations, for which reason I here omit to speak of many other questions which I dealt incidentally in this discussion.
Descartes cannot be excused from error here insofar as he asserts that “the knowledge of our mind and of God” are “the most certain and most evident facts” that we can know, but he does realize that people do not actually deduce the existence of an external world from the fact that they think. This is why he admits that such things “never have been doubted by anyone of sense.”

Knowing Knowing and Known

In his work On the Soul, Aristotle points out that knowledge of powers depends on the knowledge of activities, and knowledge of activities depends on knowledge of the objects of the activities:

It is necessary for the student of these forms of soul first to find a definition of each, expressive of what it is, and then to investigate its derivative properties, &c. But if we are to express what each is, viz. what the thinking power is, or the perceptive, or the nutritive, we must go farther back and first give an account of thinking or perceiving, for in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does precedes the question, what enables it to do what it does. If this is correct, we must on the same ground go yet another step farther back and have some clear view of the objects of each; thus we must start with these objects, e.g. with food, with what is perceptible, or with what is intelligible.

A little thought will establish that this is entirely necessary. In order to have a general knowledge of the power or the activity, however, it will be sufficient to have a general knowledge of the object. But given that human knowledge proceeds from the general to the specific, it would be reasonable to believe that a detailed knowledge of the power or activity might require a somewhat equally detailed knowledge of the object.

We can see how this would happen by thinking about the example of eating and food. A general idea of both eating and food might be this: eating is taking in other bodies and using them for growth and for energy for other living activities, and food is what can be taken in and used in this way.

Both the idea of eating and the idea of food here are fairly general, and due to their generality they leave open various questions. For example, why is not possible to live off air? Air is a body, and in physics it is in some sense convertible with energy, so it would not seem unreasonable if it could provide the matter and energy that we need in order to grow and to live in other ways.

The general account does not of course assert that this is a possibility, but neither does it deny the possibility. So if someone thinks that the general account tells them all that needs to be known about eating and food, they will not be unlikely to conclude that living off air should be a possibility. If someone drew this conclusion it would be an example of impatience with respect to truth. The example is not very realistic, of course, even if there are a few people who actually draw this conclusion, but this lack of realism is not because of some flaw in the idea of the knowledge of activities depending on the knowledge of objects, but just because most people already accept that air is not a kind of food, even if they do not know why it is not. So they already have a somewhat more detailed knowledge of the object, and therefore also of the activity.

Something similar will result with other powers of the soul, and with powers in general. In the case of knowledge in particular, a general knowledge of knowing will depend on a general knowledge of the known or knowable, and a detailed knowledge of knowing will depend on a detailed knowledge of the known or knowable. And just as in the example above, a general knowledge does not necessarily lead someone into error, but it can leave open questions, and one who is impatient for truth might draw detailed conclusions too soon. In this case, a likely result would be that someone confuses the mode of knowledge and the mode of the known, although this would not be the only way to fall into error.

Sean Collins discusses the history of science and its relationship with philosophy:

In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

While one might agree that it does not “do justice” to the question in the sense of discussing it adequately, we can see from what has been said that one cannot fully separate science from history. If we ask, “what is the nature of science,” we are asking about the nature of human knowing. In order to answer this, we require knowledge of knowing. But since knowing knowing in a detailed way depends on knowing the known in a detailed way, the question of whether history is essentially involved in knowing knowing depends on whether knowing the known in a detailed way is an essentially historical process.

Human beings and especially the life of an individual human being are very small parts of reality. One consequence is that the single lifetime of an individual is not enough to come to a detailed knowledge of the physical world without an essential dependence on the work of others, which dependence implies a historical process. The “astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure” is something that necessarily takes many human lifetimes to come to know, and is the collective work of the human race, not the work of an individual.

Speaking of Aristotle’s attitude towards matter in science, Collins says:

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

It is possible that Collins is too generous to Aristotle here, perhaps for the sake of his readers and for the sake of his own intellectual tradition, in the sense that to some extent, it seems likely that some of Aristotle’s conclusions are “impatient” in the way we have discussed earlier. Nonetheless his basic assertion is correct. Knowing the nature of knowledge in detail requires more knowledge of the knowable thing than Aristotle could have had at the time. As Collins says, this is “merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to develop.” And even if there is some intellectual impatience there, there is perhaps no more such impatience than is generally found in those who seek to understand reality.


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.