A Bad Dilemma

I stumbled across this quotation recently, and I think it’s cute but terribly wrong:

When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either cease to be mistaken or cease to be honest.

It’s ridiculous to say those are the only possible outcomes of hearing the truth. I can think of at least four others:

  • The man is insane
  • The man doesn’t agree that what he heard is the truth
  • The truth was so badly or offensively presented that it is impossible for him to see that it is the truth
  • The truth in view is one that must be received by faith rather than demonstrated by reason

Once upon a time I was arrogant enough to say that (on at least some subjects anyway) there were only two possibilities for explaining error: stupidity or evil. The quotation above is similarly wrong in suggesting that the only possible alternatives are accepting the truth or dishonesty. but those just aren’t all the possibilities. Sometimes people are just wrong without being stupid or insane or evil. He can be wrong because he isn’t convinced. He can remain unconvinced because a poor argument for the truth was offered—poor in the strength of the argument, or rhetorically poor, or ill-suited to his abilities to comprehend.

Arriving at truth is hard work. It isn’t made easier by people who substitute silly misleading platitudes for charity.

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Posted in Charity, Etc
4 comments on “A Bad Dilemma
  1. .Social engagement or evangelism-only? …What is the mission of the church?. .Here are three factors that unnecessarily polarize the debate …1 We think in terms of church programmes. We frame the whole debate in terms of how many of our 15 scheduled hours of church-run activity must be devoted to helping the needy each week. …2 We look for justification in the wrong theological doctrine. One crowd stresses the doctrine of creation the other the doctrine of salvation and then we proceed as though these are separate agendas separately addressed by the Lord. We need to begin with a doctrine of God from which flows a single creation-salvation programme in the Gospel of the Son. . .From this approach I think it becomes obvious that evangelism simply is the mission of the church. But it also means that social engagement does get worked out on the basis of and from within that proclaimed gospel….3 Even though Im a believer that the mission of the church is evangelism I submit that our side is probably most to blame for unnecessary polarization. The sad fact is that many of the evangelism-only crowd are also middle-class-only. We dont really believe that the Good News is for the poor. Which is not really a methodological problem its a spiritual and theological problem ..But the debate is not about who we should minister to! We should all agree that we must minister to the poor. And we can hardly deny that Jesus had a decided bias to the outsider! The debate is about what form that ministry takes and what makes it Christian. Well then lets have this debate while we all move onto the housing estates and with the love of Christ compelling us let us all minister to the poor.

    • aquinasetc says:

      Hello Kitty,

      Thank you for stopping by, but I guess I don’t really understand the relationship of your comment to the post, which has to do with charity in debate rather than evangelism vs. social engagement. I don’t necessarily have a problem with what you have said, mind you, but I like to keep comments on topic as much as possible.

      Thank you kindly.

  2. MarkL says:

    Very interesting. I must say I constantly find myself judging others as either stupid or evil. Perhaps your argumentation can persuade me? Here is what you said and my comments.
    •The man is insane [lacking the use of reason, is outside the scope of the quote]
    •The man doesn’t agree that what he heard is the truth [begs the question, not helpful. we want to know why he doesn’t agree he has heard the truth]
    •The truth was so badly or offensively presented that it is impossible for him to see that it is the truth [a good clarification, but if you critique the question like this, you still aren’t addressing how the question judges people]
    •The truth in view is one that must be received by faith rather than demonstrated by reason [ you win on this one, no contest!]
    I think the quotation has been proven to be inadequate, but your other formulation, accusing people of limits to their intelligence or their moral goodness is correct. However, as a practical matter, assuming a person isn’t insane and isn’t dishonest, how can one lead his or her intellect to follow reason wherever it leads?

  3. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Mark,

    I am right there with you in judging others as stupid or evil if they disagree with me. I have been trying to fix this bad behavior in myself, and this post was intended at least in part to serve as a reminder for me (besides also possibly provoking a little reconsideration of the matter on the part of those who have the same problem that I do). You wrote, in response to my alternate possibilities for disagreement:

    •The man is insane [lacking the use of reason, is outside the scope of the quote]

    I am not sure what in the quotation suggests to you that insanity is outside the scope of what the author intended. Can you point this out to me? Insanity does not necessarily imply that one lacks the use of reason entirely, right? One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting to get different results each time (which never materialize). By that measure there is a defective use of reason, but certainly there is no cause to think that the person lacks the use of reason entirely. We see this problem in (for one example) addicts who promise to themselves that the next drink, the next hit of crack, the next [whatever] will be their last (and of course it isn’t): they make the same promise to themselves and others with all sincerity, but return to their drug every single time. This problem does not mean that such people are so insane as to lack the use of reason entirely. They may be otherwise perfectly competent programmers, philosophers, or even bloggers. :-)

    Does that example help show why I think that insanity does not necessarily imply the complete absence of reason?

    •The man doesn’t agree that what he heard is the truth [begs the question, not helpful. we want to know why he doesn't agree he has heard the truth]

    Sorry, I don’t see the question-begging in what I said. The author of the quote allowed for just two possible responses to hearing the truth: accepting it or dishonestly denying it. But there is a context of personhood here that can’t be overlooked. The author of the quote believed he was speaking the truth. I, a listener, may have perfectly good reasons for disagreeing with him about the truth of what he said.

    I agree,with what you say—in the abstract. But it implies that the listener already knew that it was true (in which case he would indeed be dishonest to deny it). If he does not already know it to be true, then it implies that the presentation of the truth was so completely clear to him that it he could not possibly deny it. This is a large assumption. :-) People often provide bad arguments for things that happen to be true. I have seen this many times. When someone does this, though, his listeners can hardly be blamed for recognizing the defective argument and remaining unpersuaded that they just heard the truth. Often these sorts of differences arise because of misunderstandings or because the two view the argument with different presuppositions in mind.

    •The truth was so badly or offensively presented that it is impossible for him to see that it is the truth [a good clarification, but if you critique the question like this, you still aren't addressing how the question judges people]

    Sorry, I do not understand what you mean by “how the question judges people.” The problem is that the speaker assumes first of all that he is correct, and secondly that he has presented his evidence or argument so clearly and effectively that assent is the only possible response. Those are two very large assumptions. :-)

    Do these remarks help clarify what I was thinking?

    As an aside, the very fact that you and I are disagreeing here without assuming the other is evil or stupid supports what I was saying… ;-)

    Later you ask a question that I am not sure that I understand:

    your other formulation, accusing people of limits to their intelligence or their moral goodness is correct. However, as a practical matter, assuming a person isn’t insane and isn’t dishonest, how can one lead his or her intellect to follow reason wherever it leads?

    As Aristotle and Aquinas say, learning the truth is hard work. People often lack the time or other resources necessary for them to discover it, and even then they sometimes makes mistakes. Aristotle had the audacity to say his own tutor (Plato!) was gravely mistaken about important things! So even people blessed with time and great intelligence can make mistakes. One must do the best that he can, and follow the truth wherever it may lead him. He may make mistakes, but sincerity and honest pursuit of the truth and the humility to admit one is mistaken are much more important.

    I certainly do not think anymore that I have a monopoly on the truth. I very nearly did so in the past. People have asked me whether I might someday leave the Catholic Church just as I left Protestantism. In all honestly I can’t say that won’t happen. How could I? On the day I abandoned Protestantism I was adamant that I would not become Catholic. :-) So I can’t deny the possibility. All I can do is pray that God will help me to love Him and to cling to the truth with all my heart, no matter where that takes me. And of course a Catholic’s prayers include one for final perseverance: that we will remain faithful to the Church and to Christ, to the very end. But there are no guarantees. God help us all.

    I hope this helps,

    Fred

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