A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Death of Reason, III: Motive, Means, and Opportunity

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You can’t read mystery novels, especially of the “police procedure” subgenre, without knowing the three things you must always look for when solving a crime are motive, means, and opportunity.  (Unless, of course, you’re the title character in a crime comedy melodrama like Adrian Monk, and can solve the crime by looking through your hands and finding some obscure fact or go on a gut feeling.

Looking into the death of reason, then, we have to consider this triad — you can’t investigate a murder without doing that.  Specifically,

Motive

Why would anyone murder reason?  Simple.  It got in the way.  Our task becomes to figure out who benefited by the death.  Keep in mind, of course, that the grand tradition of the surprise ending in murder mysteries dictates that it’s almost never the obvious person or persons — although sometimes it is, just to throw the reader off.

The traditional Chinese murder mystery, for example, starts with the reader (or listener, if a storyteller is relating the tale) knowing full well who the murderer is, how it was done, and so on.  Even the protagonist, who is almost always the district magistrate (ably assisted by his loyal henchmen and, often, gods, demons and ghosts), usually knows who did it.

The entertainment comes from watching how the magistrate (e.g., Di Renjie, “Judge Dee”) draws the net in closer and closer and tricks the culprit into revealing his or her guilt.  The confession is an essential part of the process in a Chinese “mystery” novel, since no one could be executed for a crime without a confession in some form, as is a graphic description of the execution and, sometimes, the punishment meted out in the afterlife as well.  That’s something we rarely see even hinted at in “western” detective fiction, unless you’re reading Chesterton’s Father Brown or Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling stories.

Means

How was reason murdered?  Depending on the particular situation, this can either be the most obvious or the most devious, obscure, etc., aspect of the case.  The really clever criminal tries to make it look as if the deceased were killed by one means (that would tend to exonerate him or her), or was the unfortunate victim of an accident, when all the while the actual cause of death was something in which the “unsub” (“unknown subject of an investigation”) is an expert, e.g., rare South American poisons, mind control, or the Vulcan neck pinch.

The bottom line for means is that, if it looks as if the suspected culprit could not possibly have done something, he or she is probably not guilty (“beyond a reasonable doubt”).  You can’t say “not guilty” for sure, because you cannot logically prove a negative.  That is why you cannot prove that somebody did not do something, only that somebody did do something.

This is a particularly important point when investigating the death of reason — or anything else, for that matter.  If someone makes an accusation or claim, it is absolutely critical that the accusation or claim be supported by argument and evidence (reason), not intensity of belief (faith).  As Aquinas pointed out in the closing paragraph of his short treatise “On the Unity of the Intellect,” you cannot base an accusation or claim on “documents of faith,” but on “the reasons and statements of the philosophers.”

That is, you must argue your case on the evidence, not on your belief in someone’s guilt.  You otherwise slide straight into nonsense, such as, e.g., asserting that because someone is a member of a particular ethnic group or holds certain religious or philosophical beliefs or opinions that differ from your own, he or she is automatically guilty, and no proof is necessary.

Thus, if your accusation or claim lacks empirical validity (“evidence”) or logical consistency (“argument”), then you haven’t done anything except break the eighth commandment (ninth if you’re a Protestant other than Lutheran) against bearing false witness — specifically, “detraction.”

“Detraction” (another way of saying “gossip”) is divided into “backbiting” and “calumny.”

Backbiting is when something about somebody may be true, but you have no right, authority, or need to sit in judgment on that other person (or act as jury and executioner, for that matter), or the information is irrelevant, and intended merely to blacken another’s reputation.  Calumny is when something about another person is not true — which includes even your fervent belief that something must be true when you haven’t bothered to verify or prove it.  Regardless of your right, authority, or need, making false statements to the disparagement of another’s reputation — again, even if you believe with all your heart and mind that they are true — is “bad.”

How bad?  If the matter is serious, calumny ranks as a “mortal sin.”  That means that if a person dies with the sin unrepented, he or she goes straight to Hell, does not pass Go, and does not collect 200 days’ indulgence.  He or she earns eternal damnation for the dubious pleasure of scoring off another person.  Interestingly, calumny is considered so serious that it is ranked as one of the sins that “cries to Heaven for vengeance” and demands reparation, i.e., correcting the damage done to another’s reputation and making restitution.

Paradoxically, the damage done by calumny is virtually impossible to repair.  People tend to think “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  They assume that you probably have an interested motive for changing your story regarding something about which you were so positive before — maybe you were bought off or something.  (The legal dictum “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” — “False in one, false in all” — applies here.  A witness caught in a material lie, misstatement, or untruth, having thereby proved that he or she cannot be trusted, can be required to prove every subsequent statement with third party verification.)

It’s pretty much triple coupon day at the damnation counter when calumny is involved.

Opportunity

Since (as Aristotle put it) man is the animal that reasons, the opportunity to bump off reason is open to every member of the human race.  While this would tend to make our categorization as Homo Sapiens Sapiens with that “wisdom” squared (as opposed to Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis) a bit problematical, every single human being has the opportunity every day to do reason in.  Every time you make a judgment or decision about something “manifestly true” (i.e., not subject to faith, but reason) on the basis of opinion instead of knowledge, you put reason in danger.

This is because while an opinion may be true, knowledge is always true.  (Mortimer Adler gave a good analysis of the modern tendency to mistake opinion for knowledge in Ten Philosophical Mistakes, 1985.  Not by coincidence, Adler taught the philosophy of law at the University of Chicago.)  Thus, every time you give into the temptation to go with something not on the basis of logical consistency or empirical validity — that is, on the basis of sound argument or the evidence — you are guilty of killing reason.

In the next posting in this series we’ll get down to a specific case.  Stay tuned.

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