Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Post

Argument and Truth

Nancy Brown, our dutiful bloggmistress, has recently posted excerpts from a comment made on one of my postings from last year. I must say it is quite gratifying to see my writing causing discussion. Addition, set theory, poetry and mathematics and the pursuit of truth... so many topics for exploration. At present I am extremely busy, but there are days when I sit here and wonder how to select the topic to write about... It reminds me of this little passage:
"He was restless just then and drafted about into the commonest crowds. He did no work lately; sometimes sat and stared at a blank sheet of paper as if he had no ideas."
"Or as if he had too many," said Gabriel Gale.
[GKC, "The Purple Jewel" in The Poet and the Lunatics, emphasis added]
It is a good book for many reasons; among others, these words of Gabriel Gale, two of my favourite lines in all of GKC:

"Were you ever an isosceles triangle?"


"I often stare at windows."

So do I, GG; so do I. But this book is even more important because it, like every other one of Chesterton's books, is really a slovenly autobiography, part of which is an even more slovenly, and half-poetic, attempt to get at truth, and distinguish the truth from things which are nothing more than appearance.

Which has been a matter of real contention in some bloggs and other forms of media. Nancy Brown has begun to explore this on her own blogg, here and here and here. Some matters seem clearly to be about truth: "This is true, we MUST accept it, even if uncomfortable or annoying." Some others, just as clearly, seem to be matters of taste: "I like this; though I approve of it and enjoy it; but it is of no concern that you do not find it so."

How to handle such cases? How to discern truth from taste? And how to let someone know about what MAY be a serious matter? Is this mushroom edible or deadly poison? Are you a mycophile gourmet? Or perhaps you are allergic to them? Or do you have some philosophical reason against eating fungi?

In exasperation, one might wish to see what the Bible has to say. But alas - there is the tradition of the last 500 years for each to interpret the Bible for one's self - this a most unsteady foundation. Excuse me - that is not the right way to go, for my topic today as GKC said, is "not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant." [prefatory note to The Everlasting Man] It is not even concerned with the differences between Christians and varieties of Pagans. It is merely my attempt to get a little further into the idea of difference - which I thought would make a welcome change from my discussion on addition. Hee hee.

Also it is well to consider this matter now, at the tail end of the Church Year, when we ponder the "Return of the King" and the promised final division of sheep and goats, all mysteries solved and all questions answered.
Read more.

It is significant that we can show biblical evidence to begin our exploration. For example:

On the one hand: St. Paul talks about how, when he was a child he talked and acted like a child - but he grew up and put childish ways aside.
But on the other hand: Jesus says "unless you change and become like little children, you shall by no means enter the kingdom."

On the one hand: Jesus said in praying one should not repeat one's words.
On the other hand: In Gethsemani, he prayed "using the same words as before".

But we are not here to sift these biblical matters. The important point, of course, in these, and every other such case, is the need to discriminate, to discern, to tell apart one thing or idea or word from another - that is, to divide - or (to crash our math symbols together) to find the difference. (But then division is really a form of repeated subtraction, just as multiplication is a form of repeated addition.)

People, even in the Catholic Church, have decided that the techniques of the Middle Ages are mostly boring, dull, and useless. It's especially funny to hear this from university people. But Chesterton knew quite well that those methods were not only amazingly interesting, but powerfully useful:
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
[GKC, Heretics CW1:46]
Yes, at that famous little cable TV place that I used to work at, people knew that the system was founded upon "Thirteenth Century Metaphysics" - simply because it was founded on reason. And as Father Brown points out (let us say it now in chorus): "You attacked reason, it's bad theology."

To proceed. The word "argument" comes up in such discussions. Someone is "arguing" over whatever matter is at hand. But how did those people of long ago argue? What REALLY happened? Does anyone know?

(Please don't bring up the "angels on the head of a pin" for now; we can do that one some other time.)

Well, first of all, the "disputation" was a very important part of education. The only remnant I know of is the "proofs" still introduced in high school geometry and seen in other branches of math. But it was an important idea in the Middle Ages, and good exercise, not just for future priests, lawyers, and physicians, but for anyone who wanted to use his brain to deal with reality. Moreover, it was done by very serious people, not for anger or malice or "humour" (what can that mean?) or even to convince the doubtful - no, it was used by people (often very friendly people) who were in deep, complete, and utterly full agreement with each other.

Are you amazed? You should be. If I had time, I would give you samples from some fascinating books on that era. One in particular which is quite amazing to examine is Gratian's The Treatise on the Laws (with) The Ordinary Gloss, a work dating as far back as 1170. But I can give a far more recent example, which is both instructive and amusing:
My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. He continued to argue to the end; for I am sure that he argued energetically with the soldiers among whom he died, in the last glory of the Great War. It is reported of me that when I was told that I possessed a brother, my first thought went to my own interminable taste for reciting verses, and that I said, "That's all right; now I shall always have an audience." if I did say this, I was in error. My brother was by no means disposed to be merely an audience; and frequently forced the function of an audience upon me. More frequently still, perhaps, it was a case of there being simultaneously two orators and no audience. We argued throughout our boyhood and youth until we became the pest of our whole social circle. We shouted at each other across the table, on the subject of Parnell or Puritanism or Charles the First's head, until our nearest and dearest fled at our approach, and we had a desert around us. And though it is not a matter of undiluted pleasure to recall having been so horrible a nuisance, I am rather glad in other ways that we did so early thrash out our own thoughts on almost all the subjects in the world. I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled.
[GKC, Autobiography CW16:187, emphasis added]
As you can see, these beloved brothers knew the DIFFERENCE. But then what is an argument? Why have a disputation?

Ever hear a smarmy educator burble on about teaching "problem-solving" in school?

Any clue what that might possibly mean? (Ask me about recursion another time; they do NOT mean recursion.)

Argument is a CLASSICAL form of "problem-solving". It is NOT about "convincing". It is not a form of "verbal fighting". It is NOT an expression of anger or of ME being right and YOU being wrong.

It is simply a very clever technique of GETTING TO THE TRUTH.

But of course, I have transgressed. I have mentioned religious things, and the horrid Middle Ages - and that boring detective-story-writing journalist and his nasty brother who was even convicted of libel. (A long story for another time.)

Ah - despite all this, perhaps there are still some readers left to me. They want to know more.

I have already used up quite a bit of my posting-space allotment for today, so I can barely summarise the technique here. Basically, there is a thing called the "circle" - which is an odd term, considering there are really only two players in the game. But it means that the two alternate in their turns to speak. (I here refer to the description in Shallo's Scholastic Philosophy.)

First move: The Defendant states a claim on a matter. It may be something perfectly obvious, or something deeply abstruse. But the Defendant must give any necessary details on the meaning of the claim, and give "short, solid arguments" (formal explanations using logic) proving the parts of the claim.

Second move: the Objector may attack either the claim directly, or the arguments (formal logic explanations) by which it was proved.

The situation then reverses, and now the Defendant may attack the various elements of the Objector's work.

And so on. Until there is a resolution, or they discover a lack of sufficient information, or (perhaps) it is dinnertime, or bedtime, or something else intrudes. (In Socrates' case it was the hemlock.)

One of the most important of the possible moves in the attack is announced by the word distinguo. (No this is NOT a Hogwarts spell, though it is a Latin verb in the first-person singular indicative!) This word means "I distinguish, separate, divide in parts". In argument it is used to break apart something (say a word) which may have been used in a general sense, and show that its various separate specific meanings apply in different ways - for the original claim may apply in some senses, but not in others - as it is required to find the truth, each of the various cases must be examined.

Yes, at the end of time, all our arguments, and all our searches shall be terminated, and the final DISTINGUO shall be pronounced: "For there is not any thing secret that shall not be made manifest, nor hidden that shall not be known and come abroad." [Luke 8:17] Then we'll get our papers back and see where our mistakes were.

But for now, as we work in joyful hope, let us distinguish something very important. We can never tolerate error. Error is error, whether it be mathematical or logical, or historical or theological. But that does not mean we must ourselves COMMIT ERROR by pointing out error: "And why seest thou the mote in thy brother's eye: but the beam that is in thy own eye thou considerest not?" [Luke 6:41] We must always bear love in mind - love is "willing the good of the other" - and so must practise fraternal correction in love. It is again that matter of distinction, of telling apart:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.
[GKC, The Thing CW3:157]
I have rambled on for quite some time, but perhaps you have begun to see something here. Let us argue in charity, with love, with our eyes seeking truth and not our own "winning" or glory. Truth is not a game score, and, since it is intangible, has the property Dante remarks on (in Purgatorio) that its DIVISION actually INCREASES its possession. Anna Leonowens put the same idea in rhyme:
It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought:
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught."
[Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I"]
Or, to use the modern words, it's a "win-win" scenario.

But let us always argue (and read, write, learn, teach, blogg) - in love, that is (as GKC said) with our BROTHER.

--Dr. Thursday.


  1. I see I have been unclear in an important place. I ought to have said "But that does not mean we must ourselves COMMIT ERROR by failing in charity when we point out error."

    There are two GKC quotes to support this view:

    "If the missionary says, in fact, that he is exceptional in being a Christian, and that the rest of the races and religions can be collectively classified as heathen, he is perfectly right. He may say it in quite the wrong spirit, in which case he is spiritually wrong. But in the cold light of philosophy and history, he is intellectually right. He may not be right-minded, but he is right. He may not even have a right to be right, but he is right."
    [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:364] (That is, there are two kinds of "rightness" - one in truth, one in personal morals.)

    And much more important, the one which brings us to say "mea culpa" as we begin the Holy Sacrifice:

    "No Catholic thinks he is a good Catholic; or he would by that thought become a bad Catholic."
    [GKC, The Well and the Shallows CW3:450]

    Remember how another man once said, "Depart from me oh Lord for I am a sinful man."

    --Dr. Thursday

  2. Wonderful post! Thanks much - entertaining, insightful and more timely than you could imagine. :)


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