Rigidity, Pope Francis, and the Difficulties of Achieving Knowledge

Douglas P. McManaman
June 27, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Anyone familiar with the history of the papacy is aware that factions among the curia are not a new phenomenon; hence, the current factions regarding the papacy of Francis should not come as any surprise. The current dispute about his style of leadership seems, in some very conservative quarters at least, to reduce itself to questions regarding the nature of truth. In some ways this state of affairs is reminiscent of the tension between the vision of Pope John XXIII and a minority of Cardinals before and around the time of the Second Vatican Council. I don't pretend to be able to shed a great deal of light on this discussion, but I can articulate a few important but often overlooked points about the nature of "truth" implied by the logic of plausible reasoning. This might explain why I am not particularly upset nor concerned about Francis' recent statements critical of rigidity, ahistorical fundamentalism and the like.

The claim that Francis is sowing seeds of doctrinal and moral confusion is not entirely convincing to me. I don't believe people are more confused and in the dark about doctrinal and moral matters today than they have been within the past forty or fifty years. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were rather clear about certain matters, but only those who bothered to listen actually benefited from that clarity, and if my experience is any indication, relatively few bothered to listen. The situation has not changed all that much. Many who seem to have been listening to the current Holy Father have for the most part been engaged in "selective hearing" - they have really only been half listening. Moreover, why some Catholics believe that the election of a new Pope requires a re-articulation of moral and doctrinal matters covered by earlier popes, as if a new papacy implies a clean doctrinal and moral slate, is beyond me - perhaps they are looking at papal elections within an exclusively political and thus democratic model. I would argue that in some circles, the problem that some people are having with Francis's criticisms of a certain epistemic posture stems, at least in part, from their inadequate understanding of the nature of reasoning and an overoptimism regarding our ability to achieve certainty. The following are a few thoughts on some of the epistemological implications of the reasoning process.

Consider an argument, whatever the issue. There is no denying that the conclusion of one's entire argument about a particular matter is true if what is asserted conforms to the real; the difficulty here, however, is precisely in knowing whether or not one's conclusion actually does conform to the real; for we do not have immediate access to many aspects of reality. Why some people overlook this difficulty is that they tend to confuse the definition of truth with the criteria for determining what is genuinely true. The former is simple: adequatio intellectus ad rem (adequation of the mind to the real), but the latter is rather complex - it is a matter of cognitive systematization, that is to say: maximal consistency, coherence, cohesiveness, functional efficacy and regularity, elegance and simplicity, etc. The two are not at odds with one another. If what someone argues is true, it will stand the test of time, but what we have typically is a conclusion that is implied by an entire set of data, and the data (the theses or premises) on which the conclusion rests each has, for the most part, only a degree of plausibility, that is, a plausibility index that is either minimal, moderate, or high - between 0 and 1.[1] One's conclusion is typically the best estimate given the information available. "Best estimate" in this case means that the set of data on the basis of which one's conclusion is implied is maximally consistent. Furthermore, the implied conclusion is an estimate because it is underdetermined - if it were not, there would be no debate - everyone would see it. But an argument is only as strong as the weakest piece of all the data that constitute it, as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.[2] If the conclusion is true, then it conforms to the real and no new data will falsify it. New information could, however - and often does - , alter our conceptual framework; the result is that a different estimate is suggested, one that is implied by a new maximally consistent subset of data.

This process occurs almost daily when it comes to our own quotidian knowing - it is just that the vast majority of people are not explicitly aware of the process; for there are a number of cognitive biases that keep people in the dark about this sometimes oscillating process involved in knowledge acquisition, in particular an availability heuristic bias, of which very many other cognitive/induction biases are variations. Moreover, if that new estimate resulting from further information is really false, then it only appears to be true at this point in time - it does not in fact conform to the real; we cannot see that at this point, because we don't have the data, either empirical data or rational data (i.e., the right concepts, finer distinctions, etc.) - "seeing it" is something that inevitably occurs in retrospect. But such a false estimate will not stand the test of time - assuming that in time new information is forthcoming and will expose the error.

The reason context is so important in coming to a proper understanding of a text, biblical or otherwise, is that context is really nothing other than information (data), and new information can and often does introduce inconsistency into our current set of data, demanding that we discard less plausible data in order to restore consistency, the result of which is a new maximally consistent subset of data, or a new estimate. It is only when we get a firm grasp of the central and highly sensitive role that information plays in the process of plausible reasoning that we will come to appreciate the importance of dialogue, something Pope John XXIII understood very well - due, in all likelihood, to the fact that he was a professor of history. When dialogue occurs, perspectives meet, and perspective, like context, is information. Perspective is an analogical concept that is fundamentally spatial. If a person has never been to the Observation Deck of the Rockefeller Center, then that person has not seen New York from the perspective of the Rockefeller Center. When he finally does so, he sees the same thing (the city) from a new perspective. This new angle provides him with information that he otherwise would not have had. It is indeed the case that "each person has his or her own perspective" - much like "each person has his or her own interpretation"; for all of us see the world from our own unique perspective or vantage point. But what does it mean to have a perspective? I see my students from a particular and limited perspective, namely the perspective of a teacher, that is, within a student/teacher relation. That relation makes available a limited circle of information. A mother sees that same young man or woman from another perspective, namely that of a mother, and that relation makes available an entirely different albeit limited set of information. A perspective gives us an "angle" on things, and as a result of that angle, we see certain things that might otherwise be missed.

Thus, having a unique perspective means having unique information. To interpret is to understand something within the cadre of the limited information that one has, and to listen carefully to another's interpretation of a work (i.e., of art or a piece of writing) is to have our information base expanded. It is very much like listening to another plausible explanation of a crime that has been committed; the detective is sharing with me the trajectory of his own reasoning process. He may have information that I don't have, which is the reason his conjectures took a different turn from mine. His interpretation of the evidence might be wrong or it might be right, partially or entirely. But to listen to what he has to say is to allow my own set of data to become enlarged and inconsistent; it is now up to me to dismiss data that is inconsistent with the most plausible data now available to me. In other words, acquiring the "truth" is a social and collaborative process, not to mention an evolutionary process.

It is misleading to employ a mathematical argument as a paradigm instance of sound argument in non-mathematical areas of knowledge - mathematical premises are certain, and so too the conclusion, given that the reasoning is valid. It is also misleading to employ a simple and standard categorical syllogism involving indisputable data as a paradigm instance of a typical argument, such as 'All men are rational, John is a man, therefore John is rational'. The major premise is known from within - through self-knowledge - to be virtually inarguable, and so the conclusion is certain. Knowledge is very rarely, if ever, so easy. A more accurate paradigm instance might be taken from sentential logic, each statement of which is assigned a plausibility index of between 0 and 1 (minimally to highly plausible). Historians tend to understand this, so too those in the empiriometric sciences, which is likely why historians, although they argue among themselves - not to mention scientists - , tend not to be dogmatic about the issues, but have a greater appreciation for the tentative nature of their conclusions.

The epistemological implications of the logic of plausible reasoning should be obvious - suspension of disbelief ought to be a normal intellectual disposition. In short, dogmatism is rarely warranted, for new information can and often does change the plausibility of some of our data upon which our initial inferences were based. That is why a highly opinionated dogmatism that habitually places complete confidence in one's own perspective - as if no new information could possibly upset one's limited conceptual framework - is an irrational and unwarranted posture. This is one obvious problem with fundamentalism, including relativism - relativists tend to be absolutists, inconsistently and aggressively dogmatic about their relativism. Our perspective is always limited because we are always information deficient, but that perspective requires perpetual expansion, especially in regard to "information sensitive" areas of knowledge, such as history, politics, economics, science, etc. The unique problem with today's world is precisely this overconfidence and lack of readiness for new data, which is really an unwillingness to take in the perspectives of others - to regard those who hold different views as knaves and fools.

That is why I find nothing in itself objectionable about Pope Francis speaking out against "doctrinal rigidity" and "hostile inflexibility" or an "ahistorical fundamentalism". He seems to appreciate that knowledge is not easy to achieve, especially knowledge of God. He writes:

It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others' lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they "help to express more clearly the immense riches of God's word." It is true that "for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion". Indeed, some currents of gnosticism scorned the concrete simplicity of the Gospel and attempted to replace the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, wherein the rich diversity of our history disappeared. In effect, doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, "is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries. The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us.[3]

There is more truth to those final lines above than most people tend to realize, certainly far more than I could have appreciated within my first 10 years as a classroom teacher. Subtle truths, however, are easy to abuse, and so to employ these points - regarding the difficulty of achieving certitude - in an attempt to suggest that abortion, or lethal injection, or matters of basic sexual ethics are ambiguous and morally complex is nothing less than self-deception. Such maneuvers are reckless; they amount to seeing complexity where there is none. The science of ethics, like all science, is subject to a complementary relationship between security and confidence on the one hand, and definiteness and detail on the other, what Nicholas Rescher specifically designates as Duhem's Law of Cognitive Complementarity (s x d ≤ const).[4] I've been asked to estimate the price of a house across the street. If I wish for a very secure estimate, I would say the house is priced between $100 and 30 million. It is unlikely that I am mistaken, but my estimate provides very little information to a prospective buyer; however, a more precise estimate of the house would be $700,000, and that says a great deal about what the house is not (in the Toronto area), in other words, it is more informative, but it is more vulnerable to error - the house might be $750,000. Similarly, the higher the level of abstraction on which a certain discourse takes place, the greater the certainty we enjoy - that is why mathematics is quite secure and relatively free of ambiguity. As the level of abstraction descends, uncertainty and insecurity increase.

Science aims at precision on the first level of abstraction, which is why it is vulnerable to revision, while mathematics deals in necessities with respect to abstract quantities. Our knowledge of history is, in part, vulnerable to constant revision because history studies not general laws, but particular events (contingencies) and their relationship to one another, thus its conclusions are sensitive to new information. The science of ethics is subject to the same law: the more universal (general) the level of discussion, the greater the security, but as one aims for greater precision in its application to particular situations, a greater awareness of the possibility of important and relevant distinctions is required, and thus the more vulnerable to error one's judgment becomes. Simple issues such as abortion or active euthanasia are not paradigm instances of standard moral reasoning, because there are no circumstances that could justify the intentional destruction of developing human life or the adoption of a proposal that includes the death of a patient (active euthanasia) - such actions are intrinsically disordered, and difficult circumstances do not alter that fact. These issues just don't have the complexity that some people might want to believe they have; for they do not require principles much more specific than the general precepts of the natural law. Capital punishment, on the other hand, is an issue on which it is much more difficult to achieve a definitive conclusion, not to mention issues of international ethics.

And so in conclusion, I would emphasize that dialogue is important because it exposes our assumptions, which are part of the limited data set on the basis of which we observe the world around us - and we observe others and the world around us through those very assumptions.[5] The epistemic framework through which we observe and interpret the world around us is profoundly limited, perhaps unlimitedly limited, if that makes any sense - that science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance might corroborate the point.[6] One of the biggest obstacles to the progress that results from dialogue is the habitual lack of awareness of the extent of our information deficiency and of the extent to which new data alters the conceptual framework in which we think. This leads to a lack of awareness of our mistakes. We make them constantly, but we tend not to notice, or we forget about them as quickly as we make them, missing the opportunity to reflect upon their epistemological implications. It is impossible to deny with any consistency that possessing truth is possible, but possessing truth is usually far more difficult than people typically believe it to be.

After two good popes who have been very clear and definitive about some of the fundamentals of ethics and doctrine, I believe it is fitting and complementary that we now have a Pope who challenges those who speak with a rhetoric of absolute confidence and who fail to appreciate the evolutionary nature of knowledge acquisition, especially theological knowledge.