How original sin impacts the intellect and will…

Causes of intellectual Error: What keeps us from Recognizing or Accepting the Truth

We live in an age of error, and the ultimate reason for that is original sin.

However, the natural condition of fallen man being what it is, does not mean we can sit back and feel sorry for ourselves, for God Himself has come and has saved us (cf. Is 35:4). Aside from the supernatural means of grace, there are also some quite natural ways to prevent and remedy ignorance, self-deception, and fallacious reasoning, and those are open even to people who do not have the Catholic Faith.

To that end, we present today a most interesting and refreshingly clear and systematic presentation of the proximate, remote, and ultimate causes of human error, and how to eradicate them. This is particularly useful at a time when the greatest absurdities are proposed as truth and people have replaced rational, objective thought with emotion and subjectivity. The analysis below is not based on divine revelation but on principles deduced from human nature, which means it is accessible to anyone.

The following is an excerpt from pp. 280-289 of the book ABC of Scholastic Philosophy (Weston, MA: The Weston College Press, 1949) by the Jesuit Fr. Anthony Charles Cotter (1879-1954). Italics and bold print in original; footnotes removed. The entire book is available for free download here and also for purchase here.


Causes of Error

Error is a false judgment. Error is an assent to what is not so, or a dissent from what is so; we say yes when we should say no — or vice versa.

The world is full of errors. Cicero says: “Cuiusvis est hominis errare” [“Any man can make a mistake”]; and Catullus: “Suus cuique attributus est error” [“Each one has his error assigned to him”]. We, too, err almost every day. Skeptics conclude from this that there is no formal certitude at all. But we saw (thesis 1) how foolish this conclusion is. We also showed that nature has given us various means of arriving at formal certitude, and that formal certitude is possible in all fields of human endeavor.

Still, error is a fact — to be deplored, yes, but not to be denied. How can we avoid error? This is the last practical question of epistemology.

The best way to answer this question will be to find the causes of error. “Principiis obsta” [“Resist the beginnings”], as the Latin poet said. Once we know the sources of our errors, it will be easier to avoid them.

We shall divide the causes of error into proximate, remote, and ultimate.

However, before entering on this investigation, we must define error more accurately.

a. By ‘errors’ we mean those false judgments which people make in their normal state. In the abnormal state (insanity, sleep, infancy) man’s power of reflection is hampered in its free exercise ; hence nobody accuses such people of formal error.

b. By ‘error’ we understand a firm, unhesitating assent (or dissent).

Therefore we do not speak of mere opinions, i.e. as long as a man’s assent does not exceed the weight of his arguments. For, as long as a man is conscious of the insufficient evidence behind an opinion and does not assert more than the motives warrant, we do not speak of error in the proper sense.

In other words, by ‘error’ we mean purely subjective certitude.


1. Error, being a judgment, must be due, at least partly, to the intellect ; for the judgment is an act of the intellect.

But the intellect alone does not give us a sufficient explanation of error. Why should the intellect firmly embrace error? The intellect is made for the truth; of itself it cannot love error. — Nor is the intellect indifferent toward truth and error, so that it would embrace either with equal love. If that were so, the intellect would no longer be a faculty. — Nor can objective evidence ever force the intellect to adhere firmly to a false proposition. Objective evidence is the object itself manifest. Now the object cannot manifest itself other than it is.

There is then another cause of error besides the intellect. As a matter of fact, if we reflect on the genesis of our errors, we realize that some non-intellectual influence has been active. This other cause, in every case, must be the will. There is no other factor which could directly influence the intellect and move it to assent without sufficient evidence of its own.

Hence we simply say that errors are always due to the direct influence of the will.

2. Still, the influence of the will must not be exaggerated : (a) Error is not voluntary in the sense that we want it as such. No one sets out to deceive himself. It would mean that though knowing a thing to be true, he yet believes it to be false — a psychological impossibility. (b) Though error in itself is sinful (as St. Thomas teaches), yet there often are mitigating circumstances: we do not realize the danger of erring, we assert something false in the heat of an argument, we may be obliged to come to a quick decision etc.

3. Now since both intellect and will cooperate in the making of mistakes, though in different manners, it is our purpose to investigate the peculiar conditions which are apt to lead to erroneous judgments. These conditions are the remote causes of error.


Error is impossible unless it has the appearance of being both true and good.

We cannot assent to a proposition that has not even the appearance of truth. For, on the one hand, truth, as Scholastics put it, is the formal object of the intellect; on the other, merely apparent truth is sufficient for the intellect to assent, as experience testifies. — Similarly, the formal object of the will is the good ; the will cannot act unless its object be good, at least apparently good.

Now only the true is good and only the good is true. Error therefore is false and bad. But the question is : What gives to error the appearance of being true and good? This evidently is the remote cause of error.

1. Apparent Truth

Generally speaking, apparent truth is due to confusion of ideas. This is clear from the very notion of judgment. The judgment is an act by which we affirm that S is or is not P. Now when the meanings of both S and P are clear, there is no possibility of saying ‘is’ when we should say ‘is not’ — or vice versa.

The further question then is: Whence are confused ideas? Though their origin is manifold, yet we may point out four of the principal sources:

1. Lack of Attention

All our (natural) cognitions come to us through one or more of the five sources spoken of in part two [namely, consciousness, the external senses, intellect, reason, and human testimony]. Now in each source were pointed out the conditions necessary for formal certitude. But how many there are who ignore them and then assent firmly.

2. Inaccuracy

Card. [John Henry] Newman says: “Inaccuracy is the besetting sin of all, young and old, learned and unlearned. We don’t know what we are talking about.” This slovenly habit appears in the use of sentences, arguments, single words.

Do we examine each of our statements as to its exact meaning? Do we see in what sense it is true, in what sense it might be false? Do we sometimes turn the statement around, add a word here and a phrase there, and see what becomes of it? Or rather, do we not prefer wide and vague half-truths, arbitrary and ambiguous definitions?

More particularly, when arguing pro or con anything, do we make sure of the precise point to be proved, and of the soundness of the proof itself? Are we courageous enough to stand off a bit and coldly scrutinize our own arguments, ready to abandon them if they contain a flaw?

But by far the most fruitful source of error is our careless use of words, or rather the vague notions we have of the meaning of words. How many people will talk on education, religion, progress, child labor, economics, dogma, evolution — without having first made absolutely sure (a) of the various meanings of these terms, or (b) of the exact meaning which they attach to them in the present discussion. Such discussion may be entertaining (like the antics of Mickey Mouse) ; it certainly will be barren of results.

In his Apologia, Card. Newman says of Dr. Whately, archbishop of Dublin and author of a treatise on logic: “He was the first who taught me to weigh my words, and to be cautious in my statements. He led me to that mode of limiting and clearing my sense in discussion and in controversy, and of distinguishing between cognate ideas, and of obviating mistakes by anticipation, which to my surprise has been since considered, even in quarters friendly to me, to savour of the polemics of Rome.”

3. False Authority

What is the worth of authority with regard to facts as well as theories, we saw above (see p. 215-9). Authority clothed with the necessary conditions is true authority. False authority makes the same claims, although it lacks these conditions.

Let us enumerate a few cases where false authority is often assumed and easily granted.

a. According to Cicero, the Pythagoreans, when pressed for a reason of their philosophical assertions, simply replied: “Ipse dixit” ; that is, Pythagoras, their teacher, said so. That was enough for them. Now the Pythagoreans claimed to be philosophers, and as such it was their duty to investigate for themselves. Authority is not the last criterion of truth or motive of certitude.

Nowadays many philosophers swear by Kant or Hegel; Jehovah’s Witnesses swear by Rutherford, the Christian Scientists by Mrs. Eddy. It is the same intellectual idolatry.

b. What an undisputed sway public opinion holds over men’s minds! How insignificant the number of those who, having settled principles and sufficient strength of character, can go their own way both in thought and practice! The vast majority prefer to err with the mob than work out their own convictions. It is much easier.

Yet who, as a rule, creates public opinion? Are they experts in the matter? Did they first make sure of the truth and righteousness of their premises before drawing their conclusions? As a matter of fact, they generally are the leaders of political factions, men with an ax to grind, editors of newspapers whose one aim is the increase of circulation, men of wealth who care naught about principles as long as the dollars keep rolling in.

One of the most prolific and baneful sources of error today is mass propaganda. By this means men can be so indoctrinated that they can no longer think for themselves or test the objective value of their indoctrination. It becomes impossible for them to detach themselves from rumor or report, and all critical judgment has disappeared. And when one remembers that today political movements, to be successful, must be mass movements, one realizes the terrible danger of mass propaganda.

It is incumbent on the educated man to retain his individuality, to keep his power of thought and judgment, to check, as far as in him lies, this modern tendency to mass appeal.

c. Today the teacher’s authority is not rated very high. Yet, on account of the natural instinct to look up to the teacher as a guide, most pupils will unhesitatingly follow his lead. This is but right. But the teacher must not forget that his authority can never extend beyond the realm of truth. The mind of each pupil is made for truth, and he has the right to demand truth from his teacher, nothing but the truth.

Yet how many teachers there are in our universities, who, either openly or in a more underhand manner, instil into their pupils the poison of atheism or materialism, who ridicule the Catholic religion or all religion, who propose doubtful theories as gospel truths. Of course, it is to be expected that pupils trained by such unscrupulous teachers become themselves even more unscrupulous teachers. Lies do not improve in the telling.

d. What has here been said about false authority, applies equally or even with greater force to books, magazines, newspapers etc. Error does not become truth by being put in print.

Yet, as Father Lord says: “Half our popular writers today don’t care whether the thing they say is true or not, provided only it is brilliant. They would slay the truth for an epigram. They would kill a fact to make a phrase. They would rather be clever than right, amusing than honest, smart than true.”

4. Prejudices

A prejudice is a judgment accepted without due examination. It differs from an honest opinion. A prejudice is always more or less irrational, precisely because it is held without being first subjected to critical inspection. Opinions may be held rationally, viz. as long as we do not forget that the evidence for them is not sufficient to warrant a firm assent. Prejudices, on the contrary, are a case of mental astigmatism; they will not allow us to see things as they are.

To draw up a catalog of prejudices, is impossible. They vary from age to age, from nation to nation, almost from man to man. There are prejudices in sciences and philosophy, in politics and social life. Let us enumerate a few which are rather common today: Man is naturally good; all religions are equally good; it is sufficient for any man to lead a good life; man is descended from apes or ape-like beasts; miracles are humbug etc.

There are two things to be noted about prejudices:

a. We easily grant that other people, especially our enemies, are imbued with them and influenced by them in their judgments as well as actions. But it is exceedingly hard to admit that we, too, have our prejudices. Or if we admit it in general and in the abstract, nobody is allowed to touch any particular prejudice of ours; nothing fans our ire to such a red heat.

b. We try to hide our prejudices from others and from ourselves. We hate to see them discussed openly, to have them dragged out into daylight, so that everybody can have a look at them. Unconsciously or subconsciously we are ashamed of them as of a skeleton in our closet, because we half realize their irrational nature.

2. Apparent Good

Error appears attractive to us either because we love that which the proposition enunciates, or because we love the act of assent itself.

1. Self-love

Self-love may be said to be at the root of the first class of errors. We are naturally attracted toward those propositions which flatter us or our friends; we reject a priori those which seem to belittle us or ours. We readily believe what agrees with our opinions and prejudices; we stoutly deny what goes counter to them. The mere fact that a proposition agrees with our customs and desires, gives it more evidence, as St. Thomas shrewdly remarked.

2. Intellectual Laziness

Certitude is the ideal state of the mind; it denotes rest and quiet — legitimate rest and quiet. The other states of the mind imply fear of error, hesitation, suspense. They are irksome, and hence our passions urge us to get rid of them somehow.

Now in many things, certitude is to be had only at the cost of serious effort and untiring labor. This, of course, is asking too much of the indolent student. He finds it easier to repeat what others, especially his professors, have said than to probe the matter for himself. In after life, such students will blindly follow the opinions voiced in their club or among their friends; they will be satisfied with political slogans; their guide to truth and ultimate criterion will be the newspaper. Let George do the thinking, is their motto.

Concerning slogans, the handy tools of intellectual laziness, C. Ganss, of Princeton University, has well said: “Man’s indolent habits grant such phrases long life. You do not need to pursue a tantalizing line of thought farther after you have found one. Once such a phrase has clicked into the receptive mind, it is hard to dislodge it. An aphorism may be untrue, but it is always labor-saving. It economizes effort, for it is difficult with legitimate arguments to convince a persistent, hard-headed opponent, while it is easy, especially in the presence of a crowd, to knock him down with a slogan.”

3. Vanity

Some people consider it a disgrace to own that in their case, too, knowledge makes a bloody entrance. They would rather scintillate than be solid. Hence snap judgments uttered to cover one’s ignorance.

Intellectual vanity is especially apparent today in the craving for encyclopedic knowledge. It is easily acquired, and one can make a show with it. It certainly is easier to acquire than philosophy, which is not satisfied unless it has struck the rock bottom of ultimate causes and ordered all knowledge into one world-embracing system.


The last reasons why we err, are two. There is first of all the imperfection of some things. As such Scholastics put down, e.g. matter, which contains a good deal of potentiality. But the chief reason of our errors is the imperfection of human nature: the dullness of our intellect and the preponderance of human passions.

Hence we may draw a general conclusion as to the remedies of error. We cannot change the imperfection of things ; we cannot alter the nature of our intellect. But since every error is due to some inordinate passion, the final advice can only be:

A pure love of truth.

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