A mind made to grasp reality, Part II

After criticizing the misleading and insidious distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ that pervades our educational system, corrupting the minds of youth, and destroying the capacity for real thought, I noted that it was not enough to criticize. So in place of ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ I proposed the classic philosophical division between understanding, knowledge, belief, opinion, and conjecture or suspicion.

Note that the fact-opinion distinction involves a confusion of categories. Fact refers to one aspect of reality that is known, while opinion refers to a way of knowing. That puts a sharp division between our knowing and reality that already contains the seeds of skepticism, as though all our knowing activity, mere ‘opinion’, has nothing to do with reality.

In any case, the classic philosophical distinction sets reality and truth on one side, as what is known, and on the other side a variety of different ways in which the mind draws near to and attains certainty about reality. Reality exists independently of our minds, but not independently of the mind of God; our mind, however, exists for the sake of grasping the truth of reality, and was created by God to be proportioned to reality.

Last week I treated of understanding and knowledge by which the mind grasps reality without being moved one way or another by our will or emotions. These are truly objective forms of knowing, yet we are still involved as the one who knows. Today, I will treat of the remaining forms of knowing, in which the will plays an important part it the act of knowing. This is not a bad thing, so long as we are cognizant of the role of the will, and so long as the will itself is rightly ordered with regard to reality.

Belief is the first form of knowing that involves the will. Understanding and knowledge are forms of certain knowledge, but so is belief. Through understanding and knowledge the mind can be said to ‘see’ the truth of the matter. In belief the will moves the person to judge something as true on the authority of someone else.

Because we are necessarily social beings, our knowing is never wholly independent because in a variety of ways we are reliant on the testimony of others for knowledge of reality. We believe countless matters without ever questioning them and it could scarcely be otherwise.

Belief is certain because we do not question the source; if the source comes into question then the belief is shaken. So belief, finally, is only as good as the authority on which we rely. The better we judge the reliability of a source, the better founded will be our beliefs. Authority has no place in understanding and knowledge, but authority is decisive for belief.

Belief in God, however, is most reasonable and most sure, because he can neither deceive nor be deceived. He is the absolute source of all reality and all truth. Supernatural faith, which rests on the authority of God who reveals, is more certain than understanding or knowledge, even though it does not make us to see the truth of what we believe.

Opinion differs from belief because opinion sees arguments on both sides, but judges that the weight of evidence lies on one side rather than the other. The conclusion is not proven, but to our mind it seems more likely. All opinions, then, are not equal. The better opinion is founded on better evidence and the better argument. So the person who is a better judge of evidence and arguments will usually have better opinions. That means his opinions are more likely to be true to reality.

Unlike belief, with opinion the affirmation of one side of an argument does not rest on authority, but on what seems more probable to our mind. The more that ‘probability’ rests on a good evaluation of arguments, the less opinions are reliant on mere emotion.

Nevertheless, emotion and will also contribute to swaying the mind one way or another in matters of opinion. That is because the evaluation of the quality of arguments will involve what seems good to a person; that apprehension of the good is connected with a person’s will and emotions. Still, emotions are not all the same. Emotions themselves relate, more or less remotely, to reality. As a consequence, the more a person has a rightly ordered emotional life, the better his opinions will be. The person whose emotions are disordered and confused will be more likely to give way to questionable opinions.

Finally, conjecture or suspicion holds to the weaker argument, but the will inclines the mind to accept the matter for some reason extrinsic to the argument itself. The jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity based on some trivial detail and despite his wife’s countless displays of love and affection. On the other hand, in a positive way, a soldier in war suspects a booby trap because of some tiny detail that looks out of place.

This consideration of different forms of knowing points us to the whole of classical philosophy as an enterprise much broader and more varied than modern science. Many scientists, like the late Stephen Hawking, are great scientists but poor philosophers. Further, they do not know when they are departing from science and entering into philosophy. Much of what passes as ‘science’ in the popular realm, especially in matters connected to faith, is actually poor philosophic interpretation of the meaning of scientific facts.



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.

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