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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

January 21, 2018 | 1 Comment

Summary Against Modern Thought: Why You Might Say Evil Is A Thing

Previous post.

Today some purported counter-examples to this assertion are given, along with their rebuttals. As far as coming speaking about evil, see paragraph 5 and 6 from the second chapter.

Arguments which seem to prove that evil is a nature or some real thing

1 Now, it appears that the preceding view may be opposed by certain arguments.

2 Each thing is specified by its own specific difference. But evil is a specific difference in some genera; for instance, among habits and acts in the moral order. Just as virtue is specifically a good habit, so is the contrary vice specifically a bad habit. The same may be said of virtuous and vicious acts. Therefore, evil is that which gives specificity to some things, and thus it is an essence and is natural to certain things.

3 Again, of two contraries, each is a definite nature, for, if one contrary were supposed to be nothing, then it would be either a privation or a pure negation. But good and evil are said to be contraries. Therefore, evil is a nature of some sort.

4 Besides, good and evil are spoken of by Aristotle in the Categories [8: 14a 24] as “genera of contraries.” Now, there is an essence and a definite nature for each kind of genus. There are no species or differences for non-being; so, that which does not exist cannot be a genus. Therefore, evil is a definite essence and nature.

5 Moreover, everything that acts is a real thing. Now, evil does act precisely as evil, for it attacks the good and corrupts it. So, evil precisely as evil is a real thing.

6 Furthermore, wherever the distinction of more or less is found, there must be certain things arranged in hierarchic order, since neither negations nor privations admit of more or less. But among evils, one may be worse than another. It would seem, then, that evil must be a real thing.

7 Again, thing and being are convertible. There is evil in the world. Therefore, it is a real thing and a nature.

Answers to these arguments

1 It is not difficult to answer these arguments. Evil and good are assigned as specific differences in moral matters, as the first argument asserted, because moral matters depend on the will. For this reason, anything that is voluntary belongs in the class of moral matters.

Now, the object of the will is the end and the good. Hence, moral matters get their species from the end, just as natural actions are specified by the form of the active principle; for instance, the act of heating is specified by heat. Hence, because good and evil are so termed by virtue of a universal order, or privation of order, to the end, it is necessary in moral matters for the primary distinction to be between good and evil.

Now, there must be but one primary standard in any one genus. The standard in moral matters is reason. Therefore, it must be from a rational end that things in the moral area are termed good or evil. So, in moral matters, that which is specified by an end that is in accord with reason is called good specifically; and that which is specified by an end contrary to the rational end is termed evil specifically.

Yet that contrary end, even though it runs counter to the rational end, is nevertheless some sort of good: for instance, something that delights on the sense level, or anything like that. Thus, these are goods for certain animals, and even for man, when they are moderated by reason. It also happens that what is evil for one being is good for another. So, evil, as a specific difference in the genus of moral matters, does not imply something that is evil in its own essence, but something that is good in itself, though evil for man, inasmuch as it takes away the order of reason which is the good for man.

2 From this it is also clear that evil and good are contraries according to the way they are understood in the area of moral matters, but they are not when taken without qualification, as the second argument suggested. Rather, in so far as it is evil, evil is the privation of good.

3 In the same way, too, one may understand the statement that evil and good, as found in the moral area, are “genera of contraries”—from which phrase the third argument begins. Indeed, in all moral contraries, either both contraries are evil, as in the case of prodigality and illiberality, or one is good and the other evil, as in the case of liberality and illiberality. Therefore, moral evil is both a genus and a difference, not by the fact that it is a privation of the rational good whence it is termed evil, but by the nature of the action or habit ordered to some end that is opposed to the proper rational end. Thus, a blind man is an individual man, not inasmuch as he is blind but in so far as he is this man. So, also, irrational is an animal difference, not because of the privation of reason but by virtue of a certain kind of nature, to which the absence of reason follows as a consequence.

One can also say that Aristotle calls good and evil genera, not according to his own opinion (for he does not number them among the primary ten genera in which every kind of contrariety is found) but according to the opinion of Pythagoras, who supposed that good and evil are the first genera and first principles, and who placed ten prime contraries under each of them: under the good were, “limit, even, one, right, male, rest, straight, light, square, and finally good”; and under evil were, “the unlimited, odd, multitude, left, female, motion, curved, darkness, oblong, and finally evil [cf. Met. I, 5: 986a 24-27]. Thus, here and in several places in the treatises on logic, he uses examples in accord with the views of other philosophers, as if they were more acceptable in his time.

In fact, this statement has some truth, since it is impossible for a probable statement to be entirely false. In the case of all contraries, one is perfect and the other is a diminished perfection, having, as it were, some privation mixed with it. For instance, white and hot are perfect conditions, but cold and black are imperfect, connoting something of privation. Therefore, since every diminution and privation pertains to the formal character of evil, and every perfection and fulfillment to the formal character of good, it appears to be always so between contraries, that one is included under the good and the other approaches the notion of evil. From this point of view, good and evil seem to be genera of all contraries.

Notes Uncertainty fans and probabalists take note: “it is impossible for a probable statement to be entirely false.” It were entirely false, it would be false and not probable; and the opposite is so, too.

4 In this way it also becomes apparent how evil is opposed to the good, which is the starting point of the fourth argument. According as there is added a privation of a contrary form, and a contrary end, to a form and an end (which have the rational character of good and are true principles of action) the action that results from such a form and end is attributed to the privation and the evil.

Yet, this attribution is accidental, for privation, as such, is not the principle of any action. Hence, Dionysius says, quite properly, in the fourth chapter of On the Divine Names, that “evil does not fight against good, except through the power of the good; in itself, indeed, it is powerless and weak,” the principle of no action, as it were. However, we say that evil corrupts the good, not only when it acts in virtue of the good, as has been explained, but also formally of itself. Thus, blindness is said to corrupt sight, for it is itself the corruption of sight; similarly, whiteness is said to color a wall, when it is the actual color of the wall.

5 We do indeed say that something is more or less evil than another thing, in reference to the good that it lacks. Thus, things which imply a privation admit of increase or decrease in degree, as do the unequal and the dissimilar. For we say that something is more unequal when it is more removed from equality and, likewise, that something is more dissimilar when it is farther away from similitude. Consequently, a thing that is more deprived of goodness is said to be more evil, as it were, more distant from the good. However, privations do not increase as do things that have an essence, such as qualities and forms, as the fifth argument assumes, but through increase of the depriving cause. Thus, just as the air is darker when more obstacles have been placed before the light, so does a thing become farther removed from participation in the light.

6 We also say that evil is in the world, not as possessing some essence, nor as a definitely existing thing, as the sixth argument suggested, but for the same reason that we may call something evil by virtue of its evil. For instance, blindness, or any other sort of privation, is said to exist because an animal is blinded by its blindness. Indeed, there are two ways of talking about being, as the Philosopher teaches in his Metaphysics [IV, 7: 1017a 8].

In one way, being means the essence of a thing, and thus it falls into the ten categories; so taken, no privation can be called a being. In another way, being means the truth in a judgment; in this meaning, privation is called a being, inasmuch as something is said to be deprived by virtue of a privation.

January 17, 2018 | 8 Comments

Fire and Fury: It’s False, That’s How We Know It’s True

Stream: The False-But-True Fallacy

There’s concern in the City of Others Riches (Washington D.C.) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book about the Trump White House contains as much truth as an advertisement for herbal male supplements.

Matt Labash at Weekly Standard read the book and told us of the author’s note

where Wolff states that many of the accounts in Fire and Fury are in conflict with one another and many, “in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue…and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself” is “an elemental thread of this book.” Or put another way: Despite him weighing the evidence and settling “on a version of events I believe to be true,” everything that follows might be a lie.

In spite of this sobering and cautionary warning that the book might better resemble one of Bill Clinton’s “explanations” than the truth, Labash concludes “what comes through loud and clear in Wolff’s telling is that no matter how bad you thought it was in Trump’s White House, it was actually much worse.”

Many are saying things like this. Sure, Wolff might have included stories like the one he heard from a guy, who himself got it “from a woman on the beach in Florida, who heard it in a carpool line”, but since these stories show Trump to be the moronic oaf we know him to be, they must be true. Even if they’re false.

Seeing What Isn’t There

The reception of Wolff’s book is thus a prime example of the False-But-True Fallacy.

The False-But-True Fallacy, which I sometimes call the Meta Fallacy because it is the mother of all fallacious arguments, is difficult to explain. So stick with me.

How it works is like this. A certain proposition is first conjectured to be true, like “President Trump is an idiot or incompetent”. Evidence for this belief is put forward, as in the case of Wolff’s book. This evidence, if accepted, confirms the belief.

But it is later discovered that the evidence is false, or likely false. Indeed, it is learned that the evidence might have been juiced, or even in part manufactured.

Since the evidence upon which people have been relying has been proved or judged faulty, it would seem that the strength of the belief in the proposition must diminish. But it doesn’t. If anything, it increases.

Logically Illogical

How could this happen when the rules of logic say it is impossible?

Because people argue like this. “The evidence would never have been juiced if the proposition wasn’t really true, because nobody would have bothered to make up stories unless there existed other stories like the made-up ones, but about which we never heard.”

Click here to confirm what you believe is true.

January 14, 2018 | 2 Comments

Summary Against Modern Thought: Evil Is Not An Essence

Previous post.

Evil is a lack, not an attribute. We as shorthand like to say it is an attribute, but that is all this is: shorthand, a metaphor. Here we need be precise. Next week some purported counter-examples to this assertion are given, along with their rebuttals.

That Evil Is Not An Essence

1 From these considerations it becomes evident that no essence is evil in itself.

2 In fact, evil is simply a privation of something which a subject is entitled by its origin to possess and which it ought to have, as we have said. Such is the meaning of the word “evil” among all men. Now, privation is not an essence; it is, rather, a negation in a substance. Therefore, evil is not an essence in things.

3 Again, each thing has actual being in accord with its essence. To the extent that it possesses being, it has something good; for, if good is that which all desire, then being itself must be called a good, because all desire to be. As a consequence, then, each thing is good because it possesses actual being. Now, good and evil are contraries. So, nothing is evil by virtue of the fact that it has essence. Therefore, no essence is evil.

Notes It is hard to believe this in the case of mosquitoes, but there you are. (Joke.)

4 Besides, everything is either an agent or a thing that is made. Now, evil cannot be an agent, because whatever acts does so inasmuch as it is actually existent and perfect. Similarly, it cannot be a thing that is made, for the termination of every process of generation is a form, and a good thing. Therefore, nothing is evil by virtue of its essence.

5 Moreover, nothing tends toward its contrary, for each thing inclines to what is like and suitable to itself. Now, every being intends a good, when it is acting, as has been proved. Therefore, no being, as being, is evil.

6 Furthermore, every essence belongs to some definite thing in nature. Indeed, if it falls in the genus of substance, it is the very nature of the thing. However, if it is in the genus of accident, it must be caused by the principles of some substance, and thus it will be natural to this substance, though perhaps it may not be natural to another substance. For example, heat is natural to fire, though it may not be natural to water. Now, what is evil in itself can not be natural to anything. For it is of the very definition of evil that it be a privation of that which is to be in a subject by virtue of its natural origin, and which should be in it. So, evil cannot be natural to any subject, since it is a privation of what is natural. Consequently, whatever is present naturally in something is a good for it, and it is evil if the thing lacks it. Therefore, no essence is evil in itself.

7 Again, whatever possesses an essence is either a form itself, or has a form. In fact, every being is placed in a genus or species through a form. Now, a form, as such, has the essential character of goodness, because a form is a principle of action; so, too, does the end to which every agent looks; and so also does the action whereby each thing having a form is perfected. Hence, everything that has an essence is, by virtue of that fact, a good thing. Therefore, evil has no essence.

8 Besides, being is divided by act and potency. Now, act, as such, is good, for something is perfect to the extent that it is in act. Potency, too, is a good thing, for potency tends toward act, as appears in every instance of change. Moreover, potency is also proportionate to act and not contrary to it. It belongs in the same genus with act; privation does not belong to it, except accidentally. So, everything that exists, whatever the mode of its existence, is a good thing to the extent that it is a being. Therefore, evil does not possess any essence.

9 Moreover, we have proved in Book Two of this work [15] that every act of being, whatever its type may be, comes from God. And we have shown in Book One [28, 41] that God is perfect goodness. Now, since evil could not be the product of a good thing, it is impossible for any being, as a being, to be evil.

10 This is why Genesis (1:31) states: “God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good”; and Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He hath made all things good in their time”; and also I Timothy (4:4): “Every creature of God is good.”

11 And Dionysius, in chapter four of On the Divine Names says that “evil is not an existing thing,” that is, in itself; “nor is it something among things that have existence,” but it is a sort of accident, something like whiteness or blackness.

12 Through this consideration, the error of the Manicheans is refuted, for they claimed that some things are evil in their very natures.

January 10, 2018 | 18 Comments

Falsifiability Is Falsifiable

We’ve talked many times before, and at greater length in Uncertanity, about the concept of falsifiability. It has come up again lately.

The term shouldn’t be but is equivocal. I mean it is used in an equivocal sense, which is always a danger, because it happens that an argument is started with one sense of the word, but finished with another, invalidating the argument.

The first, and what I say should be the only, is the logical interpretation. To falsify is to prove something false. To prove is to demonstrate by a sound, valid argument. Thus if a man holds the proposition “7 is less than 4”, we can falsify that proposition with a simple proof which takes as its premises basic arithmetic. Indeed, for every proof we have (in math, logic, philosophy) we have also proved a contrary is false. Falsifications are thus not rare—but they are restricted, as we shall see.

Theories make predictions, or rather it is possible to infer predictions from theories. If a theory says, “X is impossible” and X is observed, then the theory has been falsified, i.e. proved false. We here take impossible in its strictest sense.

But if the theory merely says, “X is very unlikely” and X happens, then the theory has not been falsified. Not according to the logical definition of the word. Rare things will happen. The theory admitted this rare thing was not an impossibility; it admitted that the rare thing was possible. The rare thing did happen. Therefore, if anything, the theory has been given support!

Falsification was, as we all know, made popular by Karl Popper. He relied upon it for both philosophical and practical reasons. About the latter, he was frustrated by certain ridiculous theories that could not, by the use of the common tools of the day, be shown to be false. Every observation, said the believers in these queer theories, was consistent with their cherished models.

Take the theory that UFOs have visited earth. The lack of clear or unambiguous photographs means that the UFOs are clever in evading cameras. That NASA denies the existence of UFOs shows the government is in on the conspiracy. And so on. There is no way to falsify the theory that UFOs are real.

Indeed, there does not exist a definitive proof, in the logical sense. Such a proof would have to demonstrate both why other spaceship-building lifeforms could not exist or that even if they could, they could not have got to earth. These demonstrations cannot say such feats are unlikely; they have to say they are impossible. And that’s not possible. UFOs therefore cannot be falsified.

True theories also cannot be falsified; and they have the happy bonus of being right about everything. That is, every observation also supports true theories. No observation anywhere falsifies the theory “7 > 4”.

Enter the second, and incorrect, use of falsified. People will say that the UFO theory has been “practically falsified”, because no evidence of little green men has ever withstood scrutiny. These people are right about about the lack of evidence, and even right according to my lights about their judgement not to take UFOs seriously. But they are wrong to say that the theory has been falsified, practically or not.

Practically falsified is to falsified as practically a virgin is to virgin. They are not in the same philosophical ballpark.

Back to our rare X. A theory has said X is rare, but not impossible. X is seen. Depending on the rarity, for rarity is a loose word with many interpretations, people will incorrectly say the theory has been “practically falsified”. Suppose it was judged Pr(X|theory) = ε > 0, and X is observed. If ε is “small enough”, the criterion for “practical falsification” has been met. Yet once people allow themselves the phrase “practically falsified”, they generously given themselves permission to strip off the qualifier and say just plain “falsified”.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, then you have not been paying attention, dear reader. For this is the basis of the use of p-values — where ε stands in for the magic number. As some of us recall, it was Fisher’s intent to follow Popper’s lead here.

Now it may be the case that every other theory that we know also says X is rare; in notation Pr(X|other theories) = rare. Or we may not know of any other theory; or the theories we know do not allow us to compute a numerical probability.

In the logical sense, all we can say about X is that, perhaps, some theories give it higher probabilities than others. It is natural also to think that the theory which said X was more likely is itself more useful, which it might very well be. But that depends on the use of theory, and how the probabilities affect our decisions. This is why I said I agree about the decision to treat UFOs as unimportant (mistakes or hoaxes etc.), and why I did not say UFOs are false.

We are on the familiar ground of the predictive method, where we recognize that probability is not decision, and understanding how a theory can be useful to one man, but useless to a second, and so forth. See the on-going class for details.

This leads to the conclusion that “practical falsification” is an act, a decision, and not a demonstration. Nothing has been proved with “practical falsification”; something has been judged. “Practical falsification” is in this sense an opinion. In statistics, p-values are a one-size-fits-all decision, because the magic number is, well, magic. One theory is judged false (the “null”), while another has been judged true (the “alternate”).

Wait. Not judged true. Judged “not falsified”. Popper could never bring himself to believe anything; all theories were to him temporary and waiting to be supplanted. That accounts for the screwy “not falsified”, which isn’t wrong, but it is odd. See Uncertainty for more details on this.