Error as a Parasite

A Philosophical Bagatelle

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

I wrote this little piece in 1997, when reading an article on parasites that had appeared in National Geographic.


There can be a philosophy of error—a “love of wisdom” in regard to error—only per accidens. As Aristotle says, a true explanation will at the same time refute the objections or opposed positions. So, too, it may be said that an understanding of how error works, the way error grafts itself onto truth, is implicitly present in understanding what truth is and how it presents itself.

Perhaps the most elegant example is Aristotle’s refutation of Parmenides and Melissus in Book I of the Physics. When he has laid out his own explanation, he returns to the difficulties and shows why the partial truths contained in the erroneous theories can be saved only when they are integrated into the whole he has set forth. There is thus a kind of wisdom attained about the errors, if wisdom signifies a knowledge in reference to the end of a given genus, which is always some whole. The man who is “wise about war” is one who understands the particulars of warfare in reference to the end of victory. There can thus be a “wisdom” about error insofar as one is studying the manner in which wisdom offers the pattern according to which a deceiver or an ignoramus could approximate the truth by a likeness yet not attain it. Without the pattern, there could not be a bad copy; without the whole there could not be a rebellious part.

A theory or philosophy of error has to begin from the fact that error is a parasite which lives by attaching itself to some truth, or host-organism, from which it derives its sustenance, that is, its credibility. The host organism is a larger body of truth which contains enough superfluity, so to speak, to permit an error to be drawn off of it. In other words, if one starts with a very simple truth, like the principle of non-contradiction or the principle of identity, it is rather difficult to generate an error from it immediately. The principle is in itself so clear, and so “thin” as a proposition, that it has no fatness from which a falsehood could derive nourishment. Alhough Hegel’s comment that the concept of being is the emptiest of concepts is false, he is pointing out a truth: when speaking of “being in general,” one has already committed the error of making being a genus. “Being” that is applicable to all things is a logical abstraction. When we say that the principle of non-contradiction is “thin” we mean that its truth is so transparent as to admit of no unclarity, no possibility of mistaking the meaning. At the level of the undressed principle of non-contradiction, no one who was capable of thought or perception could fail to embrace it. Related to this inherent transparency is the principle of non-contradiction’s infinite fertility as a principle, its “thickness” in applicability or extension.

Accordingly, while it is true to say that the principle of non-contradiction contains within itself the truth, or truth-value, of all possible particular propositions, nevertheless it must also be admitted that the universal is the emptiest, as far as its concretion or application is concerned. Its power only becomes apparent when it is “fleshed out,” as the phrase goes; and the more fleshed out it is, the more food it affords for error. As Aristotle observes, we are rarely mistaken about the universals which can be gathered easily from experience (e.g., the whole is greater than any of its parts), but we frequently err in applying what we know in general to what we encounter in particulars. For example, we may know that all mules are sterile, but we may not know that this particular animal is sterile if we do not identify it as a mule. As long as we stick to the simplest axioms and theorems of geometry, we are not likely to fall into error; but the further we go in drawing conclusions, the more complex the proofs become and greater room opens up for making a mistake in reasoning. Room for error becomes broader still when thought shifts from reasoning in the strict sense (i.e., in a manner reducible to syllogism) to reasoning on the basis of probabilities—as when we reason about natural events which are “for the most part,” or about ethics, where tight logical inference is weakened by the factors of free will and custom—or on the basis of likenesses, as when we draw arguments from features common to man and other animals, or properties analogously predicable of God and man.

A superfluity of expanded truth, an unfolded system, a fully-formed and well-nourished body of observations, inferences, or deductions, affords opportunities for a parasite, which is not equal to the task of appropriating the whole, to seize some part of the whole and maintain its independent life by removing and transforming that part into its own life-system. Superfluity, as suggestive of useless excess, may be the wrong term; but I wish to convey the notion of a sort of “padding” around a system of truth, portions of which can be stolen from it without destroying the fundamental truths of the system itself. Without these truths, the parasites can no longer live; paradoxically, their survival depend on the health of the principles and many of the conclusions as well.

Some elements of an “organic” theory of error would be as follows.

  1. The connection of error and truth, or more accurately, the necessary subordination of falsehood to the truth from which it derives its sole means of subsistence. Error is intelligible to the extent that it still contains in its stomach the digestibilia of truth.
  2. The dependence of the parasite idea upon the host idea which precontains the segment used by the parasite; precontains it, moreover, in a holistic way whereby it serves as a part that benefits the greater organism. It is precisely this holistic function of the particular truth that the parasite directly counteracts by isolating a part and taking it out of the whole. The truth is only a “full” or “functional” truth within the organism of which it constitutes an element; when removed, it is dead, like the hand severed from the body which is called a hand only equivocally. Thus, the truth taken by the parasite becomes, in isolation, a falsehood because it is taken out of or away from the context, the body, in which it has a purposeful place in the entire organic structure. The particular truth or element is teleological, in that it contributes to the good of the entire organism; an organism is in fact an “organized body,” a multiplicity governed by the soul for the sake of some end or hierarchy of ends (nutrition, sensation, cognition, volition).[i] 
  3. The Mystical Body of Christ can be parasitized; that is the essence of heresy. Heresy is in the theological realm what intellectual error is in the philosophical realm. Protestantism lives to the extent that Catholicity remains within it, as digestibilia. When a Protestantism which has cut itself off definitively from the Body thoroughly digests what it has taken, it dies for want of nourishment, as can be seen clearly in the liberal Protestantism of the 19th and 20th centuries which has now metamorphosed into agnostic social activism, usually with a diabolical twist.
  4. Error cannot be understood independently of truth, as though it were an isolated item that could be placed in a separate category or box. The very being of a falsehood is relative to a truth to which it must remain somehow attached, even if in an attitude of antagonism or hostility, or minimally, in an attitude of selfish utility. Thus, for example, the early modern philosophers cannot develop their systems except in contradistinction and opposition to the ancients and medievals[ii]; the modern systems are in fact parasitical in nature, in so far as they start from a rejection of the old whole and carve out whatever portions of it they wish to maintain for their own sub-holistic purposes. They can exist only to the extent that the old whole still exists and provides nourishment to their errors and a whole to which their systems (which are really “sub-systems,” in that they result from a constriction of the prior whole, and not from a separation and independent development) can be opposed.
  5. Biological parasitology can teach us this, too: by far the greater number of animal species in existence, perhaps as much as three-quarters of known species, are parasitical.[iii] By analogy, one would expect error mingled with truth to outweigh pure truth—and so it does, as we can see from looking around us at the errors in which most of mankind is embroiled. The fall of man is a fall from friendship with God, where there is mutual cooperation, to a kind of parasitism off of God’s creation. This is also the essence of capitalism: a mechanism of preying off of other members of the social body for the benefit of the predator.

The truth of the theory of error presented here is confirmed by the simple fact that there could never be a philoplanē or philosphalma—that is, a “love of error” analogous to “love of wisdom”—for the simple reason that the mind of its very nature is borne towards the true and cannot accept anything false except because it has first persuaded itself that the false is true.[iv] A “thought-experiment,” for example, means a situation where one adopts a certain thesis as true, even if it is false strictly speaking, and proceeds to deduce the consequences, as in Lobachevsky’s non-Euclidean geometry. Moreover, if an opponent of non-Euclidean geometry grants that it “works” when applied to curved surfaces, he is admitting precisely that the geometry is true so far as curved surfaces are concerned, but not with plane surfaces where the straight line has an unbending definition.

It seems only fitting to let that great truth-lover St. Augustine have the final word:

People have such a love for truth that when they happen to love something else, they want it to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be proven wrong, they refuse to be shown their mistake. And so, they end up hating the truth for the sake of the object which they have come to love instead of the truth.


[i] The term “system” in its original etymology should be examined more carefully along the lines sketched here.

[ii] Gabriel Marcel says that Sartre’s ethical position can exist, as a position, only when there is a contrary understanding of freedom and truth for it to oppose. (The same is true, one might point out, of James Madison’s understanding of man and political community.) One might say that an error only exists as a position, that is, something posited or placed against something else. Truth has a kind of independent or self-sufficient being, which does not stand in need of something extraneous in order to stand; not so with error.

[iii] See National Geographic, October 1997.

[iv] Vincent McCabe argues this point exceptionally well in his book The Catholic Church and Philosophy.