A mind made to grasp reality, Part I

Last week, writing about the distortions produced by the exaltation of science I described the insidious distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’. It is one of these seemingly innocuous and evident ‘axioms’ that already contain hidden the presuppositions of a thoroughgoing materialism. It leads to our curious culture split between objective fact-based science, devoid of meaning, and moral relativism built on subjective man-made systems of meaning (effectively the new idolatry of ideologies).

Still, it is not enough to criticize. If the distinction between fact and opinion is deceptive and misleading, what sort of distinction should be made regarding different forms of knowing?

The classical distinction is between understanding, knowledge, belief, opinion, and conjecture or suspicion. Each of these different forms of knowing is referred not to ‘facts’ as the standard, but to reality and truth.

If we recall the limitations of the scientific method (measurable material reality) then we will realize that discrete scientific ‘facts’ make up only a small part of the whole reality.

Understanding is the immediate grasp of truths that are evident to the mind without any need of proof. The most basic of these truths (a truth that is implicit in every thought and statement, even those which would seek to deny this truth) is that nothing can both be and not be in the same time and in the same way. There are also other basic truths such as the whole is greater than the part.

There are also some truths that might not be as immediately obvious, but are indeed self-evident to our experience of the world in which we live. One is that we live in a world that is composed of different kinds of things like men, horses, rhinoceroses, fire ants, humming-birds, roses, oak trees, venus flytraps, oysters, quartz crystals, limestone, gold, water, and oxygen.

Note these examples, chosen pretty much at random, run from very complex animals and plants down to simple elemental substances. The last mentioned oxygen also shows that some kinds might not be immediately evident since oxygen has only been distinguished from the more evident ‘air’ by way of scientific analysis. As for water, it was once thought to be one of the four elements, but it has since been discovered that is composed of the simpler realities of hydrogen and oxygen.

Yet, while it is obvious that the whole is greater than the part, it is less obvious, but nevertheless true, that some kinds of whole are actually greater than the sum of their parts. The scientific mentality, however, has often made the mistake of trying to reduce reality to being nothing more than a composition of parts.

In any case, understanding is the foundation for all human knowledge of any kind. It is rooted in a basic grasp our mind has of reality, simply because that is what the mind does.

Sometimes understanding might go by the name of ‘common sense’, except the latter has more to do with an individual’s inborn ability to judge of true and false. Real understanding, however, sometimes requires a great deal of work to distinguish between what is truly evident and what only appeared evident at first glance.

At first glance air appears to be a simple homogenous substance, but on closer analysis it turns out that it is a combination of different gasses, some simple, like oxygen, some composite, like carbon dioxide. Still, if there were not some things that were truly evident, we could never distinguish truth from falsehood.

Knowledge, while it sometimes refers to anything the mind grasps with any degree of certainty, is most properly the sort of knowledge that is made certain by means of proof. The Latin word for ‘knowledge’ is scientia, the root of our word ‘science’. So originally science referred to any sort of ‘proven’ knowledge, but in modern times it has been limited to knowledge that has been proven by the ‘scientific’ method.

The scientific method employs what is called ‘inductive logic’. That means scientific proof moves from the evidence of individual, discrete facts, and tries to establish general ‘laws’. For example, from the discrete facts of heavy bodies falling, science comes up with the law of gravity.

There is also deductive proof that moves from principles that are grasped by understanding and proceeds by what is called the ‘syllogism’ to certain conclusions. For example: A human being’s most noble power is the power of reason; the good of a thing consists in the fulfillment of its most noble power; therefore, the human good consists in the fulfillment of the rational power. That is not only a simple deductive proof, but also a deductive proof by means of the cause, namely the nobility of the rational power.

It is also possible to reason from effect to cause. In this way we can come to some rational knowledge of the existence of God as the first uncaused cause. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.