Friday, January 29, 2010

Complementary Diversity

"A complementary diversity can be good, for in this case different people may be offering insights that complete and enrich one another. They may all be correct. A contradictory diversity is damaging; it can be a disaster. Why? The logician points out that in a contradiction (in which one affirms and another denies exactly what has been affirmed and in the same sense) there is no mutual enrichment. One must be right, and one must be wrong. Which is to say that one must be out of touch with reality. If the reality is important, the result of being out of touch can be a catastrophe."
Father Thomas Dubay, Happy Are You Poor.

I like that distinction "complementary diversity" vs "contradictory diversity". One enriches, the other takes away the very ground under one's feet.

I'm reading On Interpretation by Aristotle and this accords with what he's saying in the first part.

  • Socrates is white.
  • Socrates is not white.

These two can't be reconciled. One or the other has to be true, not both.

Yet there are other things to be considered. Our language is often equivocal. Suppose it turned out that I was talking about the neighbor's dog Socrates, who is indeed white, while you were talking about the Greek philosopher.

A lot of controversies come back to defining the original terms and how they stand in relation to each other to make sure they match up exactly and are indeed a pair. As Aristotle says:

For instance, the affirmation 'Socrates is white' has its proper denial in the proposition 'Socrates is not white'. If anything else be negatively predicated of the subject or if anything else be the subject though the predicate remain the same, the denial will not be the denial proper to that affirmation, but on that is distinct.
Father Dubay connects "diversity" to "relativism." As there is "complementary diversity" and "contradictory diversity", there is a true kind of relativism and a false kind, it would seem.... Father Dubay calls the latter "rootless".

The false kind would imply a fundamental contradiction of principles or simple facts. You can't reconcile contradictory pairs like:

  • The universe had a beginning.
  • The universe did not have a beginning.

Once the terms "universe" and "beginning" are clearly understood, and what is being said in reference to them, it is clear that one or the other proposition is true, but not both. You can't say "you have your truth, I have mine". One of you is in error.

The true kind would be a distinction about what is proper to the individual. Socrates is short in relation to some people but perhaps tall in relation to a hobbit. One realizes that "short" is a relative term.

  • Me: Socrates is short.
  • Hobbit: Socrates is not short.

We seem to disagree, but we may find if we dig a bit that we both agree as to Socrates' actual height in inches (or whatever). The difference is relative to our individual perspective. Digging into it may actually enrich our understanding because I learn more about the hobbit-view of things and vice versa, and maybe we refine our understanding of the word "short".

What Fr Dubay calls "complementary diversity" seems somewhat more complex than that but not completely separate. As far as people go it may often come down to the fact that different people have different talents, circumstances, and callings. A St Francis of Assissi does not rebuke a St Thomas Aquinas by his lifestyle, nor does a St Ignatius of Loyola contradict a St Therese of Lisieux. The principles are the same; the applications can differ.

When I drive down our mountain I am particularly aware of this because we pass through several ecological layers. The palms and orange trees of the valley town below us would not do well in our Sierra environment, where, on the other hand, the giant sequoias and sugar pines, and the delicate little forest wildflowers, flourish here. Somewhere in the middle you get apple trees and pretty Ponderosa pines. Yet all the terrains have basic things in common. And they don't contradict or falsify each other. ... they are suitable for where they are.

When people are passionate about the reasons for their life choices -- as they often are, especially when their choices are challenging and countercultural -- it often sounds like they are promoting their choices as the one right way. And sometimes they are, but not always.

I could give all sorts of reasons why (just to use a couple of examples that come to mind as counter-cultural) I think large families are good things or why homeschooling is a good way to educate children, reasons that go deeper than "it works for me" but that does not imply per se that small families are not good or that homeschooling is the only way.

It's when discussions become embroiled in this sort of difficulty that Aristotle's rules for reasoning become important. Something that St. Augustine points out in On Christian Doctrine is additionally important (he is talking about reading Scripture but I think it applies somewhat to all types of reasoning). This is some sort of basic kindness and trust in approaching understanding. St Ignatius calls it the "charitable assumption". You try not to leap to the immediate conclusion that someone who disagrees with you is simply wrong or even evil and untruthful.

Hmm, I decided to try to just sit down at the blog-screen and type every day and see what came out -- and this was it today. ;-). When I sat down here I was under the impression that I was going to brag about buying a nice-ish lightweight winter jacket at the thrift store for only $1.40.


  1. I, for one, love your experiment! Very interesting!

  2. I love this post! I am bookmarking it to look at again later. I hope you will do more articles on logic. ;-)

  3. Well I'm enjoying 'what comes out' :)


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!