AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
2.41. The ideal of Truth
There is a great good for which the best one-word name is 'Truth' or 'Knowledge'. Neither name indicates fully what we have in mind, partly because we have not completed our ideal of the good in question, and partly because both these words are used in several ways. The word 'Truth', for instance, is sometimes used to mean a virtue, either the virtue of sincerity or that of loyalty; but the good that I have in mind now is not a virtue. I mean now something to do with man's power of speech, which is the most peculiar power that he has and the seat of his enormous advantage over all other kinds of life. When words take the form of statements they are either true or false, that is either to be accepted or to be rejected. The great good called 'Truth' is something like the accumulation of acceptable statements, the pursuit, formation, and possession, of as many acceptable statements as possible.
Truth is not to be understood as the knowledge of ultimate secrets, and we are not to talk about 'the ultimate structure of the universe', or about the Truth (as if there were only one or pre-eminently one), or about Truth the woman (as if she were one thing). These are all misconceptions. There are no secrets of the universe; for a secret is a truth deliberately withheld from one person by another person; but no one is deliberately withholding from us facts about the universe; we are deliberately constructing statements about the universe, that is all. There is no ultimate Truth; for what could 'ultimate' mean here? If it means that every other Truth follows from this Truth, there is no such Truth. If it means that he who knows this Truth wants to know nothing else, such a person would not be much of a truthlover. The word 'ultimate' suggests the metaphor of climbing to the top of a pyramid. It would probably be truer to say that the pyramid is upside down; we start from the little apex which is at the bottom; and we climb endlessly towards the ever expanding and ever receding top.
Could there be such a thing as 'the ultimate structure of the universe'? Atoms are constructed into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into men, men into societies, and so on. There is no fixed end to this and so no ultimate structure in this direction. Molecules are constructed out of atoms, atoms out of protons and other particles. We do not know whether there is a fixed end to this; but anyhow such division is an unnatural meaning for the word 'structure'. The phrase seems to refer to nothing possible.
The ideal of Truth is something more catholic than this. Truth is an ever extending pyramid with indefinitely many chambers in it, all worthy of interest and respect. If we do not regard it in this catholic way, we fall into puerile esotericism and mysterymongering, a danger that is always at hand.
There is, however, a distinction between important and petty truths, and we want the important rather than the petty ones. A telephone directory when first published is probably far more true than any history of Athens; but the history can realize something of the ideal of Truth and the directory cannot. We want truths that make us understand the world, rather than merely put us in touch with a number of particular facts.
We want also precise rather than vague truths. For it is easy and useless to make a true statement if you do not care how vague it is. It is true but useless to remark that 'something somehow is', or that 'it will rain sometime'.
The ideal of Truth is sometimes adopted in the half-way form that 'Truth is good for me and my friends, but not for the masses'. 'It is all right for me to read about sex, but not for you.' Plato affirms in noble tones that the philosopher kings of his Callipolis will be passionate lovers of Truth; but examination of other parts of the Republic shows that he intends them to be lovers of Truth for themselves only; they are to have no interest in letting the common citizen know the Truth. When we ask ourselves the question, we know that this will not do. The ideal of Truth includes Truth known or at least available to all speaking beings, although we should not force a department of knowledge on those whom it bores, nor press the more terrible Truths on those who are not ready to bear them.
We include in this ideal the pursuit and discovery of acceptable statements, as well as the possession of them. Truth is inquiry at least as much as contemplation. To learn is probably better than to know, contrary to the opinion of Aristotle. The pursuit of Truth is the profession of the scholar or scientist. It would come out more clearly if we had a single word that embraced both scholar and scientist. Julien Benda revived for this purpose an old use of 'clerk', and published a book affirming that the duty of clerks is to show the world an example of disinterested intellectual activity, to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and truth, to restrain the passions of the layman, to tell the layman truths which are displeasing to him, to quench human pride, and to pay for this with his own peace. (Julien Benda, The Great Betrayal, London, 1928, a translation of La Trahison des clercs.)
It is a misfortune that a great writer has declared that 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'. Nothing is gained by this equation except a vague emotion; and an important distinction is lost. Beauty and Truth are, indeed, related to each other more closely than to any other great goods in that they are the two contemplative goods the two which lie to a large extent in what may be called just looking at the world. But Truth is intellectual, whereas Beauty is sensuous. The enjoyment of Beauty is largely independent of man's power of language, whereas Truth is completely dependent thereon.
Representative art does, indeed, give us the good of Truth as well as that of Beauty; but representative art is only a small part of the domain of Beauty.
2.42. Truth is a great good
There are strong arguments against accepting Truth and Knowledge as a great good.
It may well be said that men in general have very little interest in Truth, and therefore it is hopeless to set it up as a great good. Psychologists listing basic drives rarely include curiosity among them. Most people show only a very faint interest in learning anything but what their neighbours are doing. On the other hand, many people have a great love of mystery, that is of not knowing but being ignorant; and they complain of those who remove mysteries and make things clearer.
It is quite commonly thought that mere knowledge is bad rather than good. In the Old Testament we read that 'in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow' (Eccles. i. 18). The New Testament mostly passes knowledge by in silence; when it does glance at it the glance is unfavourable. Paul wrote that 'knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth' (1 Cor. viii. 1). He was thinking of the particular knowledge that, since there are no gods but God, it is harmless to eat meat that has been offered to idols. But many Christians have taken his words in a far wider sense; and he himself elsewhere says that 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise' (1 Cor. i. 27). Augustine, when he became a Christian, tried to kill his interest in lizards and spiders (Confessions x. 35). Bernard wrote a sonorous passage condemning all knowledge but knowledge for the sake of edification. He stigmatized knowledge for its own sake as 'base curiosity (In Cant. Cant. Sermo 36, Migne clxxxiii. 968). Even Aquinas the Aristotelian was restrained in his praise of knowledge. He did, indeed, assert a virtue of 'studiosity', which was an aspect of temperance, and consisted partly in restraining the appetite for cognition when necessary, partly in urging it on to overcome the labours of learning. But curiosity was vicious to him, too, and so was the disinterested study of sensible things. (Summa Theologica, II. ii. 166, 167.) Pascal wrote that 'man's principal disease is restless curiosity about things that he cannot know; and it is less bad for him to be in error than to be in this state of useless curiosity' (vii. 17). John Henry Newman described as a 'temptation' Nicodemus' question How can these things be?, and implied that God does not care for men to have knowledge as such (Sermon XVI).
The mantle of Christianity has now fallen to Communism, and Communists have adopted the Christian contempt for the ideal of Truth. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the doctrine that universities exist to pursue knowledge for its own sake, appear to the Communists as a denial that knowledge has any useful purpose to serve in society, or a refusal to help man in obtaining control over his environment. Pursuing knowledge without reference to its use seems to them identical with pursuing useless knowledge and asserting that knowledge has no use.
There is no doubt that both the pursuit and the possession of Truth often do harm. The agitation against vivisection is an obvious reminder of the harm sometimes done by the pursuit. As to the harm done by the possession of it, the spectacle of the universe as it really is may perfectly well be terrible and depressing.
Against the authority of the Christian tradition about Knowledge, it would be easy to set other authorities in favour of Knowledge. But authority is not much of an argument anyway. And the Christians were obviously interested parties; they feared that the love of Knowledge would turn men away from the exclusive love of a god which they demanded. Their tirades against Knowledge for its own sake are not convincing but rather contemptible, or, in a very great writer like Augustine or Pascal, saddening.
Against a recital of harm done by the pursuit or possession of Truth, it would be easy to set a recital, of any desired length, of the good done thereby. That Truth has an enormous utility is obvious to anyone who believes in history as a guide to our actions now, or in science as a means of ameliorating our physical condition.
And there is an instruct of curiosity, to form a natural basis for the good of Knowledge and Truth. Aristotle declares it: 'All men by nature desire to know.' And Aristotle was a great observer of men and beasts, and the first man to write a methodical and empirical treatise in psychology. The instinct exists also, to a smaller extent, in some other high vertebrates; and is probably connected with the elaborateness of their nerves. Because of it men often find very great joy in discovering facts.
Because of this instruct the pursuit of Truth cannot be completely stopped. It can be discouraged and disapproved and starved, as it often has been. But wherever there are men there is some curiosity; and wherever men have any strength left after getting their food this curiosity flourishes to some extent. It is ineradicable because of man's nature, and because the greatest enemy of Knowledge cannot help seeing the usefulness of some knowledge. So the only choice we have about it is whether to drive it underground and make it furtive and feeble, or, on the other hand, to encourage and develop it. The better by far is to develop and encourage it. We cannot live a rational life except on the basis of knowing the facts; as reasonable persons we must base our actions on the best relevant knowledge we can acquire. Furthermore, nothing else is consistent with our dignity. The ideal of man evidently includes the seeker and the knower, the being who is aware of the world as much as he can be, and who is developing ever farther the great system of statements by which he describes the world and takes up his attitude towards it. The ideal of universal love also demands the pursuit of truth; for we want to love the world that is, not an illusion.
Truth shares with Beauty the great advantage of being a largely non-competitive good. Your learning does not hinder my learning but helps it. Though I cannot be the first to discover what you have discovered, there is more to discover, and always will be. The pursuit of Truth often extends and enhances other goods, which without it would be of shorter duration or intensity. Thus the pleasures of eating are purified and heightened and lengthened by those who pursue knowledge about how food is obtained and prepared and eaten in different parts of the world.
Although the word 'virtue' is rather out of fashion today, and tends to be written off as one of the more fatuous interests of theologians and philosophers, yet we all still mean by it fairly well one and the same thing, and that a thing which we admit after some reluctance to be very important. A virtue is some valuable aspect of a human being, and to some extent of any living thing so far as it can resemble human beings in this respect. It is not any valuable aspect of the person, not, for example, his beauty or intelligence or speed of running. That comes out clearly if we consider the valuable aspects we ascribe to a person in writing a favourable testimonial about him; for we then find that most of the good qualities we mention are not qualities we class as virtues. The virtues are now only a small part of the possible goodness of man, though to the ancient Greeks they were sometimes the whole of it, divided into his physical, his moral, and his intellectual, kinds of goodness.
The virtues now tend to be confined to what Aristotle called moral virtues; and these are, as he said, praiseworthy habits of choice. Man as he lives acquires habits of exercising his various powers of choice in particular ways, and if we praise such a habit we call it a virtue. (In ascribing this to Aristotle I am combining two assertions that he makes separately in his Nicomachean Ethics: 1103a9 and 1106b36.)
It may be that our present use of the word 'virtue' is still narrower than this. It may be that not even all praiseworthy habits of choice are called virtues. For example, the habit of choosing happiness seems praiseworthy, and the habit of choosing unhappiness seems blameable; yet we do not call them a virtue and a vice. If so, we must ask what marks off those praiseworthy habits of choice that we do call virtues from those that we do not. Moore has plausibly suggested that 'virtues are distinguished from other useful dispositions ... by the fact that they are dispositions which it is particularly useful to praise and to sanction, because there are strong and common temptations to neglect the actions to which they lead' (Principia Ethica, p. 172).
Virtues are good by definition. The mere calling anything a virtue is an implication that it is good. There is no proper place for an argument that virtue is good, except just this argument that virtue is good by the meaning of the word 'virtue'. The place for argument and exhortation is elsewhere, namely where the question arises which habits of choice should be praised as virtues and which should not. Plato in his Republic gave a list of four which has become famous: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice. It is often said that he took this tetrad from common Greek opinion; but I know no evidence for that, and I think it more probable that he was the first to pick out and set up just these four. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics added about eight more, somewhat unconvincingly. He gave the impression of analysing very accidental opinions or usages, rather than of setting up an ideal of behaviour that a reflective person might adopt. Aquinas produced another famous list by combining Plato's four with the faith, hope, and love celebrated by Paul. But this is a typical effort of Aquinas the Tinker, as I think he should be called, soldering together the Greek and the Christian as badly as postwar smiths solder silver. Paul's faith is incompatible with Plato's wisdom; and Paul's hope is too vague and slight a thing to be made a great virtue.
None of these thinkers supposed himself to be giving the complete list of human virtues. They knew well enough that there is no definite end to the dispositions we may want men to have or praise them for having. They were only setting up what they thought the most important virtues, those most often to be striven for and most worth remembering in a slogan, or those most in need of recommendation at the moment. They were not professing to abrogate all accepted evaluations of human character and start again, but only to alter slightly the emphasis accepted when they wrote, raising a little the importance of this and lowering a little the importance of that, rarely adding a wholly new ideal or completely rejecting an old one. I shall do the same. Starting with the current evaluations of human character, and retaining the greater number of them, I shall seek to raise your estimate of two of them and lower your estimate of two others. The two virtues which I wish to celebrate and support are reason and love, the first more Greek than Christian, the second more Christian than Greek. I suppose that Matthew Arnold had them in mind when he recommended 'sweet reasonableness'. Conversely I wish to reject as vices their opposites, which Plato called misology and misanthropy, the hatred of reason and the hatred of man (Phaedo 89 D).
2.502. The word 'reason'
There are at least three importantly different senses of the word 'reason'.
First there is the sense we are using when we say that the reason for having a long chimney is to make a better draught, or that someone offered no reason for his view, or that the reason for an act is not the same as the cause of the act. In these sentences the word 'reason', whatever it means, does not mean a virtue. Therefore it is not this sense that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue.
Second there is a sense in which reason is the ability to think, or the exercise of that ability. 'Man is the rational animal' means 'Man is the animal that can think'. The word has this sense in Descartes' title A Discourse of the Method of rightly conducting the Reason; Descartes means that he is going to tell us how to think rightly. Ralph Linton was using this sense of the word when he wrote that 'reason is the ability to solve problems without going through a physical process of trial and error' (The Study of Man, p. 66). Reason in this sense of the word is, as Linton says, an ability, a power, a faculty.
The most striking part of thinking is reasoning. When we wish to call to mind an example of thinking, we tend to call up an example of reasoning. Yet on reflection we all agree that reasoning is not the only form of thinking. There are also wondering, imagining, composing, remembering, trying to remember, searching for ideas, getting ideas calculating, reciting, and indefinitely many more. All these are indubitably thought. And reason in the sense of a human faculty is the faculty to do any or most of these, not just the faculty of reasoning. Hume, for instance, is too narrow in defining it as judgement from demonstration or probability, or later as 'the discovery of truth and falsehood' (Treatise, 2. 3. 3, 3. 1. 1).
Since a faculty is not a virtue, it is not this second sense of the word either that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue.
But man can use his faculties badly or well, and to have the habit of using a given faculty well is to have a virtue. There is a virtue of exercising our power to think in good ways. There is a vice of habitually thinking badly, and a virtue of habitually thinking well. This virtue of habitually thinking well is what is meant, or obliquely referred to, by the word 'reason' when used in an honorific sense. The phrase 'it stands to reason that' means that, if you think well, you will certainly adopt the proposition in question. The phrase 'reason forbids' means that, if you think well, you will not adopt the proposal in question. If someone says that 'man is an irrational animal', he is not contradicting the statement that 'man is a rational animal', but condemning the way in which man habitually conducts his reason. Man is a rational animal, that is, he thinks; and man is also an irrational animal, that is, he thinks badly.
To give an account of reason in the second sense is to write psychology, to describe human thinking as it occurs; and this is done in, for example, Professor Humphrey's book called Thinking. To give an account of reason in the third sense, however, is to write ethics for it is to adopt or recommend particular habits of thought as being the good ways to think, to answer the question not how we do think but how we ought to think, to construct an ideal of thinking, a conception of intellectual virtue.
It is this third sense of 'reason' that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue; and the following discussion of reason is my construction and recommendation of the ideal habits of thought.
2.503. The love of truth
In the ideal of reason I include the following eleven elements: love of truth, respect for reasons, consistency, deductiveness, preference for probability, tentativeness, respect for evidence, submission to criticism, selfcompatibility, impartiality, and the lessening of misery.
The first and foremost element in a good habit of thought is the love of truth, philalethy. The good man is philalethic, as Plato said. As Sir David Ross has said, 'intellectual integrity, the love of truth for its own sake, is among the most salient elements in a good moral character' (The Right and the Good, p. 153). The good thinker seeks always to arrive at true statements and opinions and to avoid adopting any false ones. Although it is too narrow to define reason as nothing but the judgement of the true and the false, yet the judgement of the true and the false is the basic interest and duty of reason. And, as one great champion of reason has written, 'he that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not, will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it' (Locke, Essay, 4. 19. 1).
2.504. Respect for reasons
If a man wishes to acquire truths, what principles and doctrines should he adopt for his work?
In the first place, he should learn what is wrong with the New Testament's distinction between belief and unbelief, and replace it with the three-part distinction between belief, doubt, and disbelief.
It is a very important part of good thinking to realize that there are three distinct possible attitudes towards every statement. You can believe it, or you can disbelieve it, or you can remain in doubt whether to believe or disbelieve it. In other words, you can assent or dissent or suspend judgement. The New Testament distinction conceals the difference between dissent and suspense of judgement. The 'unbelief' which it opposes to belief is either disbelief or doubt. It is correct to distinguish between believing a proposition and not believing it, and it may be useful sometimes to have the name 'unbelief' for not believing the proposition. But this name 'unbelief' is dangerous because it covers the two different attitudes, disbelieving the proposition and suspending judgement about it; and failure to distinguish these two leads to many errors. We are unlikely to adopt the right attitude towards a proposition if we assume that only two are possible. Pascal, for example, argued that we are immortal by assuming that we must either believe this statement or doubt it, and ignoring the possibility of firmly disbelieving it (Pensées, ix. 1, Havet).
There is another evil in the New Testament distinction between belief and unbelief, much greater than the first; and that is the implication that it is morally obligatory to believe and morally wrong not to believe. The New Testament habitually implies that it is wicked not to believe. This is to poison reason at its source. Reason commands a moral principle contrary to that of the New Testament, namely this: search for and weigh the reasons for and against each statement, and judge in the light of them whether you should assent to the statement or dissent from it or suspend judgement. Reason says that there is nothing wicked in disbelieving or doubting as such; what is wicked is to adopt your attitude in disregard of the available reasons.
You have here two fundamental and contrary principles for the conduct of your intellect, and you must choose between them. There is the principle implied by the New Testament, that it is right to believe and wrong not to believe. And there is the principle of reason, that it is right to believe or disbelieve or doubt in accordance with the balance of the reasons available, and wrong to doubt or disbelieve or believe in disregard of the reasons available. I have chosen the principle of reason, and I beg you to do so too.
This, then, is the first and greatest principle of reason: believe, or disbelieve, or suspend judgement about, each statement that comes to your notice, in accordance with the balance of the reasons for and against it available to you. More shortly, reason demands respect for reasons. In contrast to this, the New Testament principle may be summed as: avoid unbelief.
People sometimes come to prefer the New Testament principle through taking unbelief as equivalent to doubt and judging it better to believe something than to doubt everything. In this state of mind it seems to them reasonable to say that it is impossible to doubt everything, and therefore it is reasonable to believe. But unbelief is not equivalent to doubt; it is equivalent to either doubt or disbelief, and he who disbelieves something believes something.
I will develop this point, that he who disbelieves, something believes something. To assert any statement is necessarily to reject its contradictory, and to reject any statement is necessarily to assert its contradictory. This follows from the nature of contradiction and the fact that every statement has a contradictory.
Every statement has a contradictory, because you can construct the contradictory of any statement by prefixing to it the words 'it is false that'. For example, the following are a pair of contradictories: 'there is a god' and 'it is false that there is a god'. (Langford in Mind for 1927 argued that singular propositions have no proper contradictories; but I will not go into this in an elementary lecture. Nelson discussed Langford's point in Mind for 1946.)
No statement has more than one contradictory. Its contradictory can, indeed, be expressed in different ways; for example, we can say 'there is no god' instead of 'it is false that there is a god'. But these different ways are equivalent and come to the same thing. Every statement has one and only one contradictory.
The definition of contradiction implied in this may be brought out as follows. The contradictory of any statement S is not-S. The contradictory of any statement not-S is S. Any two statements S and T are contradictories if and only if S is equivalent to not-T. Any two statements are contradictories if and only if the truth of either entails the falsity of the other and also the falsity of either entails the truth of the other.
Hence all statements fall into pairs of which one is true and the other is false. Hence, also, exactly half of all the statements that could be made are true, and exactly half are false. Hence, thirdly, and this is the important point for the lover of truth, to assert any proposition is to deny its contradictory, and to deny any proposition is to assert its contradictory; and everybody asserts exactly the same number of propositions as he denies.
The question about any statement is therefore not exactly whether to believe it or not; it is whether to believe it or its contradictory, for one of them must be true. This little shift of emphasis makes a big improvement in our mental attitude. It saves us from the common assumption that, other things being equal, it is good to believe as many things as possible and disbelieve as few things as possible. We see that this desired state is impossible, because every belief is necessarily also a disbelief, and conversely. It relieves us also from the feeling that, if we reject all the propositions presented to us, we are making no progress. On the contrary, since to reject a proposition is to adopt its contradictory, we are gaining just as many opinions as we are rejecting. It relieves us, thirdly, from the feeling that we are sceptics who ought to be believers. We see now that the difference between the sceptic and the believer cannot be that the believer believes much and disbelieves little, while the sceptic disbelieves much and believes little. Everybody, sceptic and believer alike, inevitably believes exactly the same number of statements as he disbelieves.
We must look elsewhere for a tenable distinction between the believer and the sceptic. We might say that the believer believes more affirmative statements, and disbelieves more negative ones, than the sceptic does. Or we might say that the believer more often picks the more consequential of the two contradictories; he more often picks the consequential statement that 'all Russians are suspicious', whereas the sceptic is the man who more often picks the inconsequential contradictory: 'at least one Russian is not suspicious.' Or we might define the believer as him who suspends judgement less often than the sceptic does. Many people, of course, tend to mean by 'the believer' simply the man who believes one particular statement, namely the statement that there is a god.
He who disbelieves something believes something. Therefore unbelief includes belief, since it includes disbelief. Therefore unbelief is not opposed to belief as doubt is. And the principle of reason is not a demand that we shall doubt every proposition. It is a demand that we shall decide in accordance with the available reasons whether to doubt the proposition or to believe it or to believe its contradictory.
2.505. The love of consistency
The next element in the ideal of reason is the love of consistency. This arises from the fact that certain statements follow necessarily from other statements. If a statement S follows necessarily from a statement R, I shall say that R entails S, employing the word 'entails' in a sense invented by G. E. Moore. Whenever S follows from R, R entails S. Conversely, whenever R entails S, S follows from R.
Whenever a statement entails a second statement, it is inconsistent with the contradictory of that second statement. If R entails S, R is inconsistent with not-S and to assert both R and not-S is to be inconsistent. Hence whenever a man believes more than one statement, as we all do, there is a possibility that he may be inconsistent with himself. Reason demands that this possibility be avoided. We are to watch for inconsistencies among our beliefs; and, when an inconsistency appears, we are to drop one of the inconsistent statements and believe its contradictory instead. (The question which we are to drop, of the two inconsistent statements, has to be answered on further grounds. The mere demand for consistency will be satisfied by dropping either of them.)
A horrible example of acquiescing in inconsistency is provided by a certain common way of taking the doctrine that 'the exception proves the rule'. Many people take this to mean that, for example, you can prove that it is a rule that women are inferior to men by producing an exceptional woman who is not inferior. They imply that a universal generalization is proved to be true by the production of a case in which it is false! This is selfcontradictory and absurd. An exceptional woman who was superior to men would not prove a universal rule that all men are superior to all women. On the contrary, she would disprove it completely for all time. And as to a statement about averages, for example that the average man is superior to the average woman, it is neither proved nor disproved by any individual case of anything at all.
What then is the value of this common doctrine that 'the exception proves the rule'? Is it just a piece of insanity? Yes, as commonly used today it is just a piece of insanity. But it has arisen out of a sane procedure in the lawcourts. Wherever men make and enforce rules of action, it is possible for them to allow some exceptions to their rules. If a governor is known to have said 'I make an exception in your favour', this is good evidence that the governor generally follows a certain rule, which he is breaking in this special case. The fact that the governor says he is making an exception shows that he has a rule. The exception proves that there is a rule. This is sane inference. But when it is transferred from the sphere of human rules of action to the sphere of laws of nature, insanity results.
The phrase can also make sense if taken as a reference to the fact that apparent exceptions sometimes turn out on closer examination not to be exceptions at all, and thus strengthen our belief in the general statement. Thus punishing people for ignorance appears to be an exception to the rule that they should be punished only for their voluntary acts; but it may turn out that they are punished for ignorance only when that ignorance is due to a voluntary act of theirs.
The love of consistency is not the same as obstinacy. Some people obstinately refuse to change their opinion because they think to do so would make them inconsistent. A change of view does, of course, involve that my opinion today is inconsistent with my opinion yesterday. But there is no harm in that. What is objectionable is that one of my views today should be inconsistent with another of my views today. The reasonable man pursues consistency of his present opinions with each other. He does not pursue consistency of his present opinions with his past opinions. On the contrary, he changes his opinions whenever present considerations indicate that he should.
Just as the love of consistency does not involve the obstinacy of refusing to change an opinion, so it does not involve the vice of sneering dat others for having changed their opinion, or pouncing on them for believing contrary to what they believed five years ago. The reasonable man objects to any inconsistency of your present opinions with each other, but not to any inconsistency they may have with your past opinions.
People sometimes confuse consistency with order and orderliness, and think that reason demands orderliness because it demands consistency. This confusion is often embodied in the word 'logical' used as a term for judging actions. People say it would be 'more logical' to do so and so when they mean it would embody a tighter order to do so. In this way they come to think that 'reason is that in us which demands sequence, regularity, and order in things; it resents mere accident and chance occurrence' (Bishop Gore, Belief in God, P. 53). This sometimes encourages tyranny in politics by way of the view that it is unreasonable of people to be disorderly.
But consistency is not the same as tight and simple order, or as order of any kind. A disorderly arrangement of flowers in a bed is more reasonable than an orderly one, if it is more pleasing to the eye. There is nothing inherently more reasonable about order than about disorder. Reason forbids us to hold two propositions that are inconsistent with each other; but it does not forbid us to hold two propositions that fail to belong together in some neat and orderly arrangement. And the ideal of reason includes the love of consistency but not the love of order.
There are occasions when it is very hard to be consistent. That is, there are occasions when we feel very strongly impelled to believe both that R is true, and that R entails S, and that S is false. Such a difficulty is usually largely emotional but sometimes it is purely intellectual. If Berkeley's arguments 'admit of no answer but produce no conviction', as Hume said, they provide a purely intellectual case of the difficulty. On such occasions we should not turn away our thoughts but keep on facing the difficulty and considering what we are to abandon, convinced that it is essential to abandon one of the three, either our belief that R is true, or our belief that R entails S, or our belief that S is false.
The love of consistency is important because some propositions exclude others because they entail their contradictories. In that way the fact of entailment between propositions greatly determines the ideal of reason. I wish now to bring out another and more positive way in which entailment determines the ideal of reason. If it is reasonable to believe a given statement, it must also be reasonable to believe all the other statements which the given statement entails. Hence, given one reasonable belief, we can add to our store of reasonable beliefs by finding what it entails. To do this is to be deductive, and deductiveness is part of the ideal of reason. The reasonable man keeps looking for entailments, for 'therefores' and 'follows froms'. By the discovery of entailments he increases his stock of reasonable beliefs, he uncovers inconsistencies which he can then remove, and he brings to bear on each proposition a much greater amount of reasonable consideration and argument, thus making his decision about it much safer.
Deductiveness is the most striking of all the elements in the ideal of reason, and the most widely known. It is often falsely assumed to be the whole of reason. It is already fairly clearly expressed in the dialogues of Plato, both in the actual procedure of argument depicted there, and in phrases like 'wherever reason may carry us like a wind, there we must go' (Rp. 394 D). The magnificent passage on misology in the Phaedo is largely an endorsement of deductiveness: 'A man can suffer no greater evil than to have become a hater of deductions' (logouV mishsaV, Pho. 89 D).
We must, however, make one correction in Plato's statement of the ideal here. Propositions cannot themselves blow us in any particular direction as a wind does. The statement R cannot take us by the hand and show us the statement S which it entails. Our creative effort is required in order to think of any of the other statements which a given statement entails and see that it entails them. The discovery of them is a slow process, though when one is discovered it is often hard to believe that our ancestors failed to realize it.
Thus Plato slightly misplaced the passivity which he assigns to the reasonable man in these passages. The reasonable man is passive in acknowledging and submitting himself to all the entailments which he perceives. But he is not passive in perceiving them, for there is no one to show them to him if he were just to sit expectantly waiting for them to appear. He is active in searching for these entailments. He is active in choosing in which direction to search, and which of the discovered entailments to follow up.
Plato's slight misconception here is reminiscent, and perhaps an ancestor, of the common view that it is bad to think of your conclusion first and then look for arguments for it afterwards. That is perfectly false. There is no harm and much good in thinking of your conclusion first. There is no harm, because the value of your argument is independent of the order in which you invented its parts. When you urge that 'S must be true because of R', the strength or weakness of that argument is nothing to do with the historical question whether you thought of S before you thought of R. There is much good in thinking of your conclusion first, because, if you do not think of it first, you will probably never think of it at all. Good arguments are mostly produced by people who want to prove some particular conclusion, not by people who want to use some particular premiss to prove -- anything it will prove! If you hear a chemist say 'I believe so and so, and I am going to try to prove it', you should not suspect that he is a bad scientist. It is much more likely that he is a good one.
2.507. The pursuit of certainty
In seeking to decide which of a pair of contradictories is the true one, the reasonable man asks first whether they are analytic or synthetic statements. I explain and justify this rule as follows.
We want to avoid doubt or suspense of judgement if we reasonably can; for the task of reason or good thinking is to adopt the true one of each pair of contradictory statements and reject the false one. Provided that we include disbelief in belief, it is true to say that our aim is to believe as much as we reasonably can. We desire that, for as many statements as possible, we may reasonably abandon suspense and come down on the side of either adoption or rejection.
When, then, is it reasonable to abandon suspense about a proposition and either accept it or reject it? Once we have adopted a statement, reason bids us to adopt whatever other statements it entails, and to reject whatever other statements it is inconsistent with. But how are we to adopt the original statement reasonably? How are we to get started? This question is the search for the criterion of truth; for it is equivalent to the question what are the criteria for deciding which of a pair of contradictories is the true one. The first part of the answer to it is that the criterion of truth is different for different kinds of statement, so that we must make the relevant distinctions among statements, and assign its proper criterion to each kind that we distinguish.
Some statements are selfcontradictory, for examples 'no horse is a horse', 'a horse is an insect', 'a triangle does not have three sides', 'if two people are brothers one of them is a woman', 'x is a motor-car and x is not a vehicle'. We need no plainer criterion of a statement's being false than that it is selfcontradictory.
If a statement is false, its contradictory must be true. Hence the contradictory of a selfcontradictory statement is a true statement, for examples 'a horse is a horse', 'a horse is not an insect', 'a triangle has three sides'. 'it is false that if two people are brothers one of them is a woman' 'either x is not a motor-car or x is a vehicle'.
These examples show that there is a class of statements for which the criterion of truth and falsehood is selfcontradiction. They are false if they are selfcontradictory, and true if their contradictories are selfcontradictory. I shall call them 'analytic' statements, 'analytic' falsehoods if they are selfcontradictions, and 'analytic' truths if they are the contradictories of selfcontradictions. Every statement that falls outside this class I call 'synthetic'.
If a statement is analytic, its contradictory is analytic too; and if it is synthetic, its contradictory is synthetic too. You do not change this character of a statement by prefixing to it the words 'it is false that'.
Analytic statements are analytic in virtue of their meaning alone. It is simply and solely what the words mean that makes it false that 'a horse is an insect'. It follows that we have to decide whether a statement is analytic solely by considering its meaning, and that when a statement is analytic we can tell whether it is true or false solely by considering its meaning, and cannot tell it in any other way. It follows also that, in seeking to decide which of a pair of contradictories is the true one, the reasonable man asks first whether they are analytic or synthetic statements.
This rule at first appears to be petty and unimportant on the ground that analytic statements are trivial. Who wants to be told that it is false that a horse is an insect, or true that a triangle must have three sides? But, on the contrary, the rule is of very great importance for two reasons. The first reason is that people who are not well aware of the distinction often spend hours of study and labour and come out with results to which they attach great importance, but which are in fact analytic truisms that could have been obtained without any labour at all. It has been my painful task to point out to a friend, who had taken to writing and composed after four years' research a very learned and obscure book, that the thesis he was seeking to recommend was true by its meaning alone, and all his erudition was irrelevant to its support. This misfortune is frequent. It may well be called 'the first distemper of learning', to borrow a phrase from Francis Bacon; and it may be said to consist in mistaking words for matter, in that it mistakes a statement true by its mere meaning for one that gives important information about the world.
We do not by the mere light of nature see in every case whether a statement is analytic or synthetic. Even when we set ourselves to decide a given case we sometimes have difficulty. And when we are not thinking of the distinction at all, and have our heads full of some concrete matter that we have studied, we often produce a statement which we assume to be an important description of the matter but which is in fact an analytic truth.
Here is the second reason why it is important to realize and apply the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Analytic truths are not all truisms, and analytic falsehoods are not all obviously false. Take any three large numbers. That the first when added to the second equals the third is either an analytic truth or an analytic falsehood; but you often cannot tell which without doing some calculation. That there is an infinity of prime numbers is an analytic truth; but it may take you a month to see it if you try to prove it for yourself; and even following Euclid's proof of it takes a number of seconds. analytic truths, far from being all trivial, include the domain of mathematics, vast, difficult, rich, and important. Mathematical proofs are the means by which we realize the analytical truth of complicated or surprising analytical truths; for they are demonstrations of entailment, and entailment is an analytic relation. Whether one statement entails another depends solely on the meanings of the two statements, and has nothing to do with the contents of the world.
Mathematics has two extraordinary values. In the first place it is independent of all observation. It needs no looking or listening or touching or smelling or tasting. It needs no laboratories or field trips. It is all done in the head. It is purely intellectual. In the second place mathematics, or let us say more generally analytical science, is the realm of absolute conviction and, we believe, absolute knowledge and proof. In it we never need to content ourselves with mere evidence or likelihood. I do not mean that we have never been mistaken in this sphere or never shall be again. That would be false. I mean that we need not and should not acquiesce in mere probability in the realm of analytical science, but may and do set ourselves the goal of absolute certainty and proof, and believe that we usually achieve it, and I have no doubt are right so to believe. The reasonable man pursues certainty and eschews mere probability about all analytic statements.