Are There Truths We Cannot Not-Know

Hey guys, this is another paper I had to do for school, do enjoy, do not copy.

In the Eighth Book of his Metaphysics, Aristotle proceeds to argue against the theory of perception, a theory that is held by some of the Pre-Socratics, namely Heraclitus and Anaxagoras, and by the later sophist Protagoras. The theory of perception dictates that the perceptions of any person are in all cases true, hence the idea in Protagoras that man is the measure of all things, i.e. viz. himself. Of course, this theory necessarily requires that the whole Universe be in constant flux, because if there were any principles that were constant, they would be true at all times regardless of whether someone perceived them as such or not. In the end, the theory of perception seeks to end any claim made about objective truth and turns the nature of all reality toward the singular perception of any individual.

Aristotle, perhaps unsurprisingly, rejects this view in its totality. He mounts five basic reasons why this theory cannot be true and is, in fact, nonsensical. In addition to these five points, it is obvious from the text that if such theory were true, it would be necessary that every person would know it from birth, because it could be readily perceived as such. In itself, that is a contradiction, because, as Aristotle points out, “if all are false it will not be true that all are false, and if all are true it will not be false to say all are false.”[1] That is to say, that if this view were true, then to point out that this view is true would be the same thing as pointing out that this view is false. In making his arguments, Aristotle borrows heavily from Plato, specifically the Theatetus, where Plato, in the person of Socrates, mounts his own attack against the theory of perception. Of course, Aristotle restates some of the valid reasons that Plato has already formulated and, in a few cases, points out new implications of them and furthers Plato’s claims.

The first argument that Aristotle makes against the theory of perception is the idea that language in itself relies on the unchanging Principle of Non-Contradiction in order to function. That is to say, that one can safely assume that when they speak the word “dog,” the person to whom the word is spoken to will understand that he is speaking about “dog” and not “non-dog,” i.e. that a word cannot mean “dog” and “non-dog” at the same time and in the same respect. Without this tacit agreement between conversation partners, no communication of any sort that relies on language is possible. As Aristotle points out, “It would seem also that in saying the man is not a horse we should be either more or not less right than in saying he is not a man, so that we shall be right in saying that the same person is a horse; for it was assumed to be possible to make opposite statements equally truly.”[2] It is quite obvious that language cannot function in this environment.

This is an argument that Plato makes in the Theatetus. Aristotle goes on to point out, as does Plato, that, on these terms one cannot have a reasoned discussion with anyone, “[t]erefore, with these men there is no reasoning. But as for those who are perplexed by the traditional difficulties, it is easy to meet them and to dissipate the caused of their perplexity.”[3] Aristotle points out here that whereas, if someone were to seek refutation of the theory of perception, they could be given logical reasons against it, they could not be given logical reasons for it, because the theory of perception, seeking to deny the Principle of Non-Contradiction, is inherently illogical.

The second point, which is also shared with Plato’s Theatetus, is that the theory of perception is self-contradictory. Aristotle points out that since the affirmation of a thing is equally true to its negation, then one cannot conclusively affirm or deny anything. Aristotle is quick to point out that, “… if it is not possible to affirm anything truly, this itself [i.e. the theory of perception] will be false—the assertion is that there is no true affirmation. But if a true affirmation exists [i.e. that the theory of perception is true], this appears to refute what is said by those who raise such objections…”[4] The scenario is, basically, that if there is no true affirmations, then the theory of perception is not necessarily true, and, if the theory of perception is to he held as true, its own content contradicts with it.

This points out that, under its very own precepts, it is self-contradictory to teach the theory of perception. To teach such a theory, if it were true, would be equivalent to teaching exactly how I cold or warm I felt at 12:31 PM today. Though, granted, I could presume to tell someone whether I felt warm or cold at 12:31 PM today, the information would be of no use to him or me, but teaching presupposes that the information relayed will be of some use to the students. Therefore, if it were illogical to teach it, the only recourse for the theory of perception to be true would be for every person to know it independently, but because this is not the case, it cannot be true.[5]

The third point that Aristotle makes is the idea that the theory of perception is an exaggeration of a true principle in a limited amount of cases, i.e. subjective sensations. In this, he drives further than Plato, who says that the theory of perception is true in cases of subjective sensation. Aristotle points out that even though the sensations of different people may be different, they only vary in degree (some people may find whipped cream more sweet than others), but that there are no two people who would, respectively, get two different sensations from the same thing, i.e. there are no two people that would find whipped cream respectively sweet and bitter. If such a case arises, then one of the two people must have some damage in the sensory organ. This is true for cases such as light hypersensitivity, where the sensate organ of sight is damaged in people who find a normal amount of light painful.[6]

In fact, Aristotle points out that even the same person can have two contradictory sensations of the same thing, when they are sick as opposed to when they are healthy, but there has been a qualitative change in the sensor rather than in the object sensed that has changed the sensation.[7] The point is that these contradictory sensations are neither at the same time, nor in the same respect, since the person sensing has changed. In saying this, Aristotle goes back to Plato in saying that, regardless of the differences in sensation among different sensors, the thing sensed is consistent in itself, in that whipped cream has not suddenly become bitter as opposed to sweet when a man who was previously healthy tasted it when he was sick and back to sweet when he regained his health.

Aristotle next points out that it is illogical to think that because things that are of a certain quality can be changed into being another thing they are both things at the same time. He points out that, if a thing is changed into another, “it follows that that which is moved must first be in that out of which it is to be moved and then not be in it, and move into the other and come to be in it…”[8] That is to say that, in order for a thing to change, it must first be actually be part of group “x” and potentially part of group “y”, but it is not necessary or true that it must be in both groups at the same time, otherwise there would be no change. Flux presupposes this distinction.

He continues to point out that, for the theory of perception to be true, all matter must, necessarily, change both qualitatively and quantitatively constantly. Aristotle argues that, even though one could, from faulty observation, suppose that everything changes quantitatively constantly, things do not change constantly qualitatively, therefore, the theory of perception falls again.

Lastly, Aristotle points, as Plato, that, in times of emergency, people seek out experts in each field, thereby affirming that there are degrees of wisdom. Sick people seek out a doctor and proceed to follow what they prescribe them, which would be illogical if every person had all knowledge available to them. In addition, they follow the doctor’s orders; they eat bread if the doctor tells them to eat bread and do not argue about why that which is prescribed is bread as opposed to non-bread.[9] Of course, if the theory of perception were true, “they should not, if there were not fixed constant nature in sensible things, but all moved and flowered for ever.”[10]

It is interesting to point out that one of the implications of this refutation of the theory of perception and, frankly, something that is taken as self-evident in this argument is the fact that there are certain truth-claims that everyone knows instinctually. That is to say, that there is such a thing as common sense. In this, it seems that Aristotle anticipates and provides a contradiction for Renee Descartes’ claim that one can only know for sure those things which to doubt would be illogical. The implication of that view is that only people formally engaged in logic could truly know things and that, by necessity, common sense would have to be dismissed.

Ralf McInerny resolves to point out the arguments in Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas prove that, by necessity, everyone must have access to certain truth claims. McInerny’s first point is that the fact that humans possess language points out that they have a basic understanding of the Principle of Non-Contradiction. He says, “If it is true that the bike is now in the garage, it cannot be true that it is not in the garage. If it is true that you promised something, it cannot be true that you did not.”[11] In truth, every human can testify to the tacit agreement of this principle in every case of this sort. The fact that humans argue at all, in fact, is proof of the idea that there must be an implicit agreement of the principle behind it[12], otherwise people, like animals, would simply fight.

Since every human has reason, every human must possess the knowledge of the Principle of Non-Contradiction, otherwise reason would be impossible. McInerny points out that our very ability to deny the Principle of Non-Contradiction proves that it must exist[13], because if it did not exist, as Aristotle points out in his first argument against the theory of perception, its affirmation and negation would have equal truth value and would be both equally devoid of value.

McInerny then deals with the criticism that innate ideas are, in one way or another, useless, because they do not point out anything about reality. Of course, this is simply not true. The Principle of Non-Contradiction may not make any distinction about kinds of things, etc., but it makes a distinction in all things, specifically that they cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.[14] By the same logic, the saying “do good and avoid evil” does not make any distinction about how to do good and avoid evil, but it does point out that good is not evil and that evil is not good, i.e. that they are distinct from one another.[15] In both cases, however, as Aristotle has pointed out, it is necessary that the idea of the principle remain constant throughout for it to make any sense at all and, if this is true, the idea is either objectively true or objectively false, regardless of what one may perceive about them. McInerny develops Aristotle’s points further here, in saying that since the Principle of Non-Contradiction is innate to all people, the tools to argue against the theory of perception are present to all people.

In addition, because these principles aid and facilitate thinking rather than being “pre-stored” information, they are outwardly exhibited first in specific cases, i.e. “the bike cannot be in and out of the garage at the same time”, or “it is good to help others,” and the formal statement of the principle comes later in someone’s life[16], concerning the inward person, it is the principle that pre-exists the application of it into specific cases, albeit subconsciously, so that the general principle must have existed first in order to have gotten specific applications of it. This is supported and presupposed in the argument against the theory of perception, because without the pre-existence of the Principle of Non-Contradiction language could not exist and people would not be able to not only communicate with each other, but use anyone else’s language system.

McInerny also points out that there are instincts in the human that are assumed to be good, such as “that I should preserve myself in existence, avoiding dangers to life and fending off attacks, and that I should eat and drink to preserve my life.”[17] Of course, if the theory of perception were true, one could not term these instincts as either “good” or “bad. In addition, since to eat and not to eat would be equivalent to one another, people who could not make that rational distinction would starve themselves, which would bring the unequal effect of their death (that is as opposed to eating). Because most people, when they reach the time of rationality, do not starve themselves, it would seem that the Principle of Non-Contradiction has already exhibited itself in them.

All in all, Aristotle’s attack against the theory of perception wins out in all points. It seems that just about anything that could possibly go wrong with an argument goes wrong with that argument. Of equal importance, it is a necessary implication of the refutation of the theory of perception that everyone must have certain innate ideas in them, through which they are able to function in society. It is important to note that if this claim were not true, i.e. that all people have access and truly know the Principle of Non-Contradiction, the theory of perception would gain much strength, but, on the other hand, there is undeniable evidence to the contrary, i.e. that humans communicate, discuss, and argue with each other, a behavior which is not seen in the animal kingdom, where the default means to solve conflict is physical confrontation. The very fact that we are able to discriminate amongst our instincts between “good” and “bad” shows that the Principle of Non-Contradiction is well in place. In addition, the fact that choosing one contrary over another brings forth very different effects is the last nail on the coffin of theory of perception and points out that it is necessary that every person have access to basic logic.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Trans. Jonathan Barnes. Vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

McInerny, Ralph.  “Are There Moral Truths that Everyone Knows?” in E. McLean (Ed.),  Common Truths. (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, 1999), pp. 1-15.


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6, 1063b34-5=pg. 1680

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 5, 1062a25-8=pg. 1678

[3] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6, 1063b11-4=pg. 1680

[4] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 5, 1062b 6-11=pg. 1678

[5] Refer to the point made before the examination of Aristotle’s arguments about how, even if everyone knew the theory of perception independently, it would still make it invalid.

[6] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6 1063a1-4=pg. 1679

[7] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6 1063B1-6=pg. 1680

[8] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6 1063a19-23=pg. 1679

[9] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6 1063b29-32

[10] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Book VIII. 6 1063b32-34

[11] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 9

[12] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 9

[13] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 7

[14] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 8

[15] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 11

[16] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 14

[17] McInerny, Ralph. Common Truths, “Are there Moral Truths That Everyone Knows?” pg. 13

A Word About the US Presidential Election and the MA Question 2

I have intentionally held back from writing this post, but I think it is about time for this to be put forth.

One of the reasons for which I was not very ardent about this post is that I respect the daimon’s command to Socrates to not go into politics. I hope that the following post will not be confused for that.

The other reason can be illustrated by a little story. One day, two Englishmen were arguing about the proper pronunciation of the word “neither.” One said that is was to be pronounced with a short “i” sound, the other said that the “i” sound should be long. Being deadlocked, they decided to ask the Scotsman sitting two seats ahead of them (they were on a bus at the time). The Scotsman told them, “It’s naither.” (pronounced with a short “e” sound). The Scotsman’s position is very much what I ascribe to in terms of who I want elected, neither. Allow me to explain why. I am a college student and, frankly, I have seen not much be done these last four years to either ease my troubles regarding tuition or make the job market better out there. Obama has not done much for me and I don’t think Romney will do much more if gets elected. So, I hope they both lose (who would win in that case, I do not know, but I am sure it will not be anyone who will give a damn about me and a lot of young adults like me).

Allow me to ascribe my chief grievances with the whole campaign (on both sides) and by I have absolutely no optimism about the next president.

First and foremost, I could not bear to watch many of the debates from the beginning to the end. How some people can say so little ans speak so much, I cannot understand. There was nothing but rhetoric, talking past each other, and ad hominem attacks. Not one time did we get a real debate, where both candidates outline their points and then go on to logically argue about their validity. The Bad Lip Reading video on YouTube that they made about the debate(s) was about as accurate as watching the real ones. People in this country need to understand that we cannot make progress in this way. If we the people allow ourselves to be persuaded by empty rhetoric, nothing will change (again). It’s clear that our leaders will not be the examples of virtue that I, at any rate, would hope they were, so we the people need to show them how to do it.

Some specific instances that annoyed me:

Bidden’s response to the question about abortion (at the end of the debate). First of all, the abortion question is not an ex fide doctrine (in fact, it is not a doctrine in the Catholic Church) I know enough about Catholicism to know that (even though I am not Catholic). Second, the wording itself annoys me. Bidden need not use “ex fide doctrine” when he (much more accurately) could have said “teaching” or (even better) “position.” Of course, if he had said that, he could not hide behind, “I believe it for myself, but I wouldn’t want to push my views on you.” To that, I respond, “And why, most venerable man, do you believe this doctrine? Because a man with a white skullcap told you so? [I do not mean to be irreverent toward the Pope, I am merely trying to show how Bidden seems to see him]” This is because, as I understand it, if you believe the Church’s teaching, i.e. that abortion is murder, you most definitely want to impose your views on others. Let’s look at comparable positions. Suppose I told you, “I am against rape, but I can’t impose my views on you,” I hope that if I told that to anyone, even as a joke, they should slap me. Or, if we go back to our history, “I am against the idea of owning other human beings, but I don’t want to impose my views on you.” Seriously, I hope you’d consider anyone who would say that insane. I ultimately think that Bidden was making use of his loftiest words to go past the heads of as many people as he could. I think it is obvious that the question about abortion does not, in any way, depend on religion. It is, rather, a philosophical question and I could make a case both ways without ever using the idea of God. So, I don’t see what Bidden is talking about, but I can be sure that he always means what he says.

Since we are on Bidden, the outright lies did not help either, like when he said that he voted against both Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which is simply not true.

Less of a point of annoyance and more of a concern, I hope Romney was respectful in handling his binders full of women, though I do wish to know how one can do that.

I wish Romney’s plan to balance the budget was contingent on more than his smile, which I judge to be the second-best of the campaign (Bidden takes the cake on that one, too), but I understand, baby steps.

I have started going to the gym recently (that’s why I have not been able to write as much), but I do wish I could train with Paul Ryan and be taught his secret ways about running a marathon in less than three hours.

In other news, I wish the President had given me a cut on his Nobel Prize money, me being a broke college student and all that good stuff, seeing how he got the vast majority of the young vote four years ago. (In case you were wondering, other students would appreciate a similar move, too)

If you notice, I only talked about one point in depth and that is because it really rubbed me the wrong way. There’s not much else to talk about, really. All the rest was crap, this stuff was interesting crap.

On a serious note, however, the real reason why I wanted to write this is one of the propositions up for voting in Massachusetts. I am talking about Question Two, of course, and if you live in Massachusetts and have not heard about it, you must be living under a rock (or you have broken free of the chain of politics, for which I congratulate you). In fact, even if you are not living in MA, I think it is very important to look at it, because, if it passes, it could provide a basis and precedent that would lead to more states making similar policies, so, I think it is very important.

It is officially called the “Death with Dignity Initiative” and it is supposed to provide physician-assisted suicide to terminally ill patients. The initiative says that a terminally ill patient is to be defined as any patient who (a doctor says) has less that six months to live. What it does not mention (surprisingly), is that the FDA has rules about how much bad stuff (i.e. the stuff that will kill you) you can put in a pill, so the dose is a series of one hundred (yes, you read that right, 100) pills you have to take for it to kill you. Talk about death with dignity, have you ever seen 100 pills. I poured out the rest of my multivitamins (there was about 100 of them left) and I’d rather shoot myself than take 100 of those one after the other.

That’s not to mention that if you take them with water (which is probably worse off, because you could probably choke on one of them and die a quicker death if you did not), you’d have to relieve yourself a few times before you can finish the job. Actually, I think drinking 50 glasses of water (let’s suppose they only drink half a cup at a time), or even 25 cups could harm you. Imagine the last thing you have to do in this life is to go to the bathroom, how dignified.

That’s first off, (I realize that it got a little humorous toward the end there, I don’t mean to make light of the situation, only to point out the absurdity of it all) but the problem persists. We hear just about everywhere about people who were told they had less than [insert number six or less here] months to live and, somehow, a cure was found or something happened that saved them (granted, there are many who do not go past the time doctors say they will die). Add onto that number all the people who get two very different opinions from different doctors about those issues and then consider the fact that the “you have x amount of time left” is supposed to be an estimation at best and any doctor will admit that. The human body does not work like a clock and, because this is so, predictions about how much you have left do not mean a whole lot (I am not saying here that you should disregard them, only that to make such cut-off on these grounds sounds a little silly).

That being said, even if a doctor could assure you beyond the shadow of a doubt that you had less than six months to live, suicide is still the wrong option. Before you say, “You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t know all the pain…” I do. My father’s mother passed away from cancer and she moved in with us for help the last few months. I saw every stage and all the pain that she went through. I understand that it is horrible, but just because it is does not mean you have the right to take your own life. Plato seems to agree with me on that. In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that though death is nothing to flee from, one does not have the right to take his own life, because he is not the cause of his own life (if you are unfamiliar with the “First Cause” argument that is formally put out in Aristotle, comment and I will explain). Beyond that, if you agree that murder is wrong (i.e. the act of killing an innocent human being), you cannot exempt yourself from the equation. If you accept the rule, you must accept that “[    ] murders [    ]” is wrong in all cases, even when the same person is the doer and the one on whom the action is being performed.

The problem goes even further on the practical scale. We have seen, in the recent years, the disaster that medical marijuana has brought. There are many people today who get marijuana legally because they have a headache, or because they can’t sleep at night, or other such complete crap. I am not saying that if this preposition goes through the same will happen, but we have to consider the situation where a doctor is “liberal” with his “death pill(s)” prescriptions. I think anyone who is realistic will have to accept that some of this will happen, but I say that even if it takes one life (supposing I agreed with the rest of it) that is beyond that six month cutoff, it has done a great harm to society. If you abuse medical marijuana, you get people who are high that are not supposed to be high, if you abuse this, you get people who are dead who are not supposed to be dead (oops!). After all, suppose you sue a doctor for determining wrongly that a patient had less than six months to live, he could always go against his data, blaming someone else for the screw-up and so on and so forth. I don’t think there is a high likelihood that you can prosecute these people simply because of how much the determination of how long a patient has to live is based on the doctor’s judgment  and, frankly, I don’t think you can really blame them for making the wrong estimate (within a certain bound, too).

Another problem related to the one above is that the six month cutoff (though I get the idea) is a little arbitrary. Suppose someone is diagnosed with “seven months to a year” to live, is the fact that they miss the six month deadline by a one to five months to hold them back from killing yourself. What do you tell to those people if you are a doctor, “Oh, you know, go on a cruise or something, try to enjoy life for about six more months, then we’ll help you kill yourself.” That’s simply silly. What standards are there for picking the six month cutoff?

In short, my humble recommendation is that you vote against this preposition. It is silly, arbitrary, morally impermissible, and it will cause much more harm than it will ever cause good.