A Thought on Cognitive Systematicity

D. McManaman

After sending my brother an interview with Victor Davis Hanson on the situation in the Ukraine, my brother replied by saying: “So far I don’t find it anywhere near as enlightening as Mearsheimer” (Professor John Joseph Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He is an American political scientist and international relations scholar, and he belongs to the realist school of thought).

This is the problem I have with this political commentary (i.e., Mearsheimer, Col McGregor, Hanson, Tucker Carlson, etc), and it goes back to the criteria for what is true versus the definition of truth. I can read someone, a theologian, scripture scholar, economist, historian, whatever, and I can find it very enlightening, and the exhilaration that goes with that is wonderful. But here is the problem: what is false may feel just as exhilarating, interesting and fascinating as reading what is true. In fact, reading what is “true” may at times feel less exhilarating. I remember reading Patrick Woods and Technocracy Rising (which I now dismiss as nonsense) and watching him on video–I was at a local and run down coffee shop that has now been turned into a Starbucks, unfortunately, and I remember sitting there with a coffee and headphones and really enjoying that video series, feeling super enlightened, fascinated, exhilarated, etc. I know that were I to listen to that now, I wouldn’t feel anything, except perhaps like I was drinking a cold cup of coffee. This is the difficulty: truth is conformity with what actually is in reality; that’s its definition. Unfortunately, we don’t have direct access to reality in all its complexity and details, and uncovering it is a matter of induction, or plausible reasoning. Hence, all we have is the criteria for truth, and the criteria are the parameters of cognitive systematicity: completeness (comprehensiveness, avoidance of gaps or missing components, unity and integrity as a genuine whole that embraces and integrates all its needed parts); cohesiveness, consonance, functional regularity, functional simplicity and economy, and functional efficacy. We see these criteria at work especially in biblical studies.  

The difficulty–and people like Nicholas Rescher see this well–is that “all that is true will have these properties”, but “not everything that has these properties is true” (just as “all men are animals”, but it is not necessarily the case that “all animals are men”). Given the information we (or specific individuals) have at this time, the most consistent, efficient, consonant, complete and cohesive answer or conclusion may turn out to be false with the addition of a new piece of data, that is, new information–scientists know this experience well. When we discover that with this new piece of information, the case that was being built up in favor of a very specific conclusion turns out to be false, we will notice that this does not undo the experience we had earlier on, namely, the exhilarating experience of being “enlightened”, of being apparently on the right track, of being apparently “right”. Being wrong felt the exact same way as being right. Hence, being wrong can feel exactly the same way as being right. In fact, it often does feel the same way. More to the point, the cause of the exhilaration and fascination was not the fact that what we were hearing or learning was in accordance with reality (truth), rather, it was caused by the internal consistency, coherence, harmony, regularity and economy of what we were hearing, or learning. We often assume that we have enough information, until suddenly a new piece of data is discovered that upsets the applecart of our previously held theory, contention, conclusion, etc. 

So, it is very much like art and the experience of the beautiful. I can stand before a beautiful piece of art, a painting, and experience delight, fascination, exhilaration, etc., but that is due to the harmony and integrity of the work, which are properties of the beautiful. But we cannot speak of the “truth” of a work of art. We can’t say that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is more true than Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, for example. Truth participates in beauty, but truth has the added feature of being related to the real and measured by the real. 

So any one of us can listen to Mearsheimer, or whoever, and experience the feeling of being enlightened, but we really have no idea whether or not what he says is actually true (in conformity with the real). This is especially the case when what he, or whoever, says coincides with what, deep down, we want to be true.