Philosophical Reflections XIV

The brevity required in these articles imposes a rather bare-bones approach. Treated thoroughly, each part could become a whole chapter, if not a whole book. I have tried to give the gist, some concrete examples where needed, and left the rest up to your own minds to pursue.

A number of comments on Philosophical Reflections were printed in TableAus. I have already discussed PB’s epistemological criticism (“Knowledge without Rationality”). DL’s comments (Sep 1995), that maths proves that science isn’t the only means to knowledge, is largely answered by the same reply: I never said it was. Indeed, maths is a classic example of a discipline based on reason, and reason is the core of my method.

Do not people who accuse me of saying that “science is the only way to truth” ever stop to ponder that this is a philosophy series?

Sufficient other issues have been raised that now is a good time to enjoy a brief interlude from the natural progression of ideas, and reflect on some of those issues and their implications. This might put a bit more flesh on the bones.

Who is This God Person Anyway?

TW raised the issue of God (in passing, he notes that any personal inadequacy does not release him from the responsibility to make his own rational assessments: a true and moral statement).

Ted is right that Duality does not automatically exclude the idea of God. Some versions of God are excluded, but not all. A God that is supposedly above all reality and subject to no laws that govern its existence – the transcendent, infinite, ineffable, almighty yet totally invisible one that is the final result of my-god-is-better-than-your-god one-upmanship – is disqualified from rational philosophy by being metaphysically impossible. Nothing can exist outside of reality. However, even the Christian God can be rescued from this limbo by being put outside of our physical universe but left inside a larger, all-encompassing metaverse, the laws of which bind him.

Duality is the raw reality we live in. The task of rationality is to explain what we encounter therein. Everything our consciousness experiences, whether sensory perceptions, feelings or whatever, are part of external reality, by reason of being experiences not creations, and we must determine what they mean. For example, the five “standard” senses are readily proved to be basically reliable, though under defined conditions they can be misunderstood (e.g., optical illusions). Intuition and related phenomena stemming from subconscious cognitive processes clearly are useful raw materials for understanding reality, but equally clearly must be evaluated by reason, not merely accepted at face value. Duality per se does not disqualify any experiences: it is merely the starting point for evaluating which ones have cognitive value.

Thus we can analyse Ted’s examples. Love and religious feelings certainly exist. We all experience love. Even if we don’t experience them, we can see they exist by their effects on the behaviour of other people. (Note again that such feelings are, like our brains and bodies, essentially part of external reality, albeit a part intimately connected with our consciousness. This is because they are things which impinge on our consciousness from outside itself, things it can influence but which are not invented by it.) Love is easily explained (and heartily to be recommended!). Religious feelings also have non-mystical explanations. Just as love does not imply the existence of Aphrodite, religious feelings do not imply the existence of gods.

Rationality explains and interprets by using the laws of reason, including the laws of evidence. The gods of Olympus are not disqualified by Duality. They are disqualified because no-one’s home. Equally, a biblical God is not disqualified by Duality. He is disqualified because there is no valid evidence for his existence. Any claims for a God under those circumstances are just empty hypotheses: of no value (indeed, a disvalue) to the life of a rational being.

The Hive

AJ claimed that the ethics I describe is a “philosophy of the beehive, in which only the well-behaved, productive members are considered fit to survive”.

This is an example of the error of identification by accidental similarity rather than by essentials. The only thing my ethics has in common with a beehive is the virtue of productiveness. But the essence of a beehive is a collective of self-sacrificial slaves. The essence of my ethics is what is good for the individual, reflected in its fundamental values of your reason (not mindless servitude), your purpose (not one imposed by a king or a collective) and your self-esteem (not self-sacrifice). My ethics is based on rationality, and therefore extols independence and individual rights. This is the opposite of the ethics of the beehive, which is collectivism.

Productiveness is a virtue for both man and bee because of the requirements of living in reality. But for man, it is a virtue because it is good for the individual: any value to anyone else is a consequence, not a justification.

Purposes and Freedom

AJ complains that I say we are born with free will and the freedom to choose and attain our goals, something I should preach to starving Africans. He also criticises the examples I gave of valid purposes, along the lines that they are things not everyone can achieve, and those who can are often not perfect according to my ethics.

There is no doubt that we have free will. And from that it follows automatically, within the constraints of reality, that we can select a goal in life. That does not mean we automatically can achieve it. The rational man does not choose a goal that is impossible. He or she might choose a goal that is difficult, even fraught with danger. Indeed, it is rational to strive for the highest goals that are within your power to reach (and damn the opinions of the hive!). Naturally, in duality there are two sides to this. It is your consciousness which decides your goals, by reference to reality; it is your mind which decides how to achieve them, by reference to reality; but the best of men can fail, whether because they make a mistake, or are plain unlucky. That’s reality.

As for hungry Africans, does Arthur believe their interests are served by accepting their lot? Does he think they live as men if their response is merely to present their need as a demand on the rest of humanity? Or are their interests served by making it their purpose to build a better life, and to do so as rational beings? There are times when all action is impossible: whether because of a gang of thugs or a natural disaster. But while there is life, while any action is possible: then your interests are served by reason, by purpose, by rationality, and all the virtues that entails. The more so when times are hard. The task of philosophy is to teach people how to live, not how to die. Nothing can help you when no action is possible, a fact which does not invalidate a philosophy which tells you how to live when action is possible.

I chose my examples of valid purposes to be wide-ranging and various, to indicate that a valid purpose can be anything rational, “rational” including being suitable for your abilities and interests. In all jobs, and all purposes, it is not how high you go but how well you do with the abilities you have. Virtue and self-esteem are not defined by comparison with others, but by being true to yourself. If all you can be is a labourer: then you should make it your purpose to apply your mind to be the best labourer you can. I know such men exist, because I have known them (as well as their opposite!)

In passing, I find curious Arthur’s claim that a free market economy, which is simply one based on individual rights, is to lead to “a return to the dark ages, with a totally unprivileged underclass considered to be barely human.” It was the rebirth of reason in the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment and the development of free market economies which put an end to the dark ages, lifted the peasants out of the mud, ushered in individual rights and democracy, and produced the richest societies in the history of the world.

Thinking in Essentials

There is certainly no room for a detailed point-by-point refutation of Arthur’s arguments. Anyway, it is more interesting and instructive to identify and examine the essence of his philosophy (despite the difficulty of being certain from just one letter).

The fundamental essence is his belief that there is no rational basis for ethics. Arthur states as much, and most of his criticisms turn on claims that my philosophy does not describe the behaviour of most people (including his ad hominem, and incidentally false, claim that my philosophy was born in the rare air of academia). So what? Ethics is not descriptive, but prescriptive: the prime task of philosophy is to determine, by reason, how people best can live in the world. The assumption behind Arthur’s strange remarks that my philosophy is “strangely religious”, while I never name my “authority” for my “commandments”, is this: any claims that there are virtues and vices must be religious, because they can’t be rational.

Contrary to this, my philosophy is based on reason, not on faith, and not on commandments. My “authorities” are reality and reason, alone. In a nutshell, reality exists and consciousness exists. From the nature of these two, it follows that we must and can learn about the world; that our own life is our highest value, a value that demands the other values of reason, purpose and self-esteem; that rationality is the highest virtue, a virtue comprised of parts such as honesty, integrity, independence, justice, productiveness and pride. These things follow from the nature of reality and the nature of man, and I have given my reasons. For all Arthur’s denial of my conclusions, he presents no argument against my reasons for stating them. He just doesn’t like the conclusions.

The second essence of Arthur’s philosophy is man as victim. The starving don’t have the freedom to choose and achieve their goals. Technology causes long dole queues so how can productiveness be a virtue? There isn’t room for all of us in the lab, and hardly anyone chooses their career and fewer still end up doing what they set out to do. Self-esteem is determined by parents and peers; sometimes, some people can improve it, somehow. What a miserable view of existence. Arthur correctly identifies how most people live, and seems to understand how “happy” it makes them. I deny that they should, or must, live that way: and have given my reasons.

The final essence of his philosophy is man is not good, can’t be good, and might as well not bother trying. Let’s just laugh about how silly and weak we are, and maybe we’ll muddle through. No, Arthur, I do not have a “naive belief in the innate rationality and virtuousness of mankind.” What I know is that most people want to live, and want to be happy: and that the way to achieve these goals is a rational life based on rational values and virtues.

From the fundamental of Arthur’s philosophy, that ethics can’t be rational, the rest follows. A valid philosophy must be merely descriptive: because no rational prescriptions are possible (only ones based on faith or authority). Humans are thistledown blown this way and that by chance and men: because reason is futile except perhaps as a tool to gain knowledge of facts, facts to be used without reference to rational values. Since it is not in men’s interests to be good (which would imply a rational basis for ethics), they might as well not be, except of course they shouldn’t be so bad that the hive throws them out. Well, he can believe that, as long as he doesn’t demand that I or anyone else pay for the consequences. For myself, I beg to differ:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (Ayn Rand, afterword to Atlas Shrugged).

You choose which is best for your life.

© 1995 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.