Knowledge Without Rationality

PB amplified his arguments that reason is not the only route to knowledge. He denied that he is an enemy of reason and the scientific method, he merely denies that valid knowledge can be reached only by those means.

PB made an extensive analogy with train travel, train travel representing reason, my position being that train travel is the only way to get to real places, and his position being to deny that. Like the use of hiking etc, methods other than reason can take us where trains just can’t go, whatever “positivists” (as he calls me) say about such methods being “invalid”. He named art, religious experience and meditation as his analogies of non-train travel; all being “ways of knowing the world.” Even playing tennis is a form of knowledge unreachable by descriptions and physics. To the positivist, he says, these are invalid because they are not scientific – but that such positivist claims are merely circular arguments.

He said that positivism fails the test of reality; that quantum mechanics is an example of this, and my “scorn” for such arguments is a “rearguard” action for “positivism”.

He admitted that reason is crucial to integrate knowledge and distinguish illusion from reality; but then says that “logical, scientific type of thinking” is inadequate for understanding or describing reality; but he will use them in the areas in which they work.

His “proofs” were that: if scientific, rational knowledge is sufficient, we sould have no need for great art, literature etc to help us make sense of the universe and our lives, but we do have them, so it isn’t; and that if positivism could give us a complete philosophical system, philosophy would have reached the truth by now and everyone would be in agreement. He ends on a favourable comment on Zen koans, “designed to help pupils see the limits of analytical thinking.”

PB’s latest arguments for routes to knowledge outside of rationality (Tableaus , June 1995) raise some issues that warrant a reply.

First of all, I have to reiterate that the scientific method is only one aspect of rationality. To put the record straight, I don’t say that the scientific method is the only way to reach valid knowledge. I dosay that valid knowledge can be reached only by rational methods. To avoid any further confusion with science, in this letter I will use the label “reason” for the method I champion.

Note that I have always recognised the vital role of creativity, intuition etc. in reaching an understanding of the world. That role is in seeing order in apparent chaos and in stepping out of dead alleys to see new patterns and new possibilities. All the remarkable associative ability of the subconscious mind is grist for the conscious mind’s perusal. But that is the crux: the results have no automatic validity. They must be examined by reason and integrated with all of our knowledge. Indeed, Peter himself recognises this “crucial” role of reason, so I’m not quite sure why he thinks he disagrees with me. Reason is central not because nothing else has any role, but because it is the only way we have to evaluate the inputs to our consciousness. Without the test of reason, any claim is arbitrary and without cognitive value.

Also to set the record straight, though my philosophy shares elements with “positivism” and numerous other philosophies, it is none of those. It is best identified with Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand). I disagree with positivists on many things.

Peter spends much time drawing an analogy between trains and reason. However, while this illustrates his claim that reason is not the only path to knowledge, that is all it does: it provides no evidence for that claim. Indeed, a better analogy is to equate reason to all forms of travel, including trains, planes, automobiles and feet. Some people follow the tried and true paths, never going beyond their limited horizons. A very few climb the heights of the Himalayas. We live in the real world, and in principle, everything that can be known about the real world is accessible to reason, though not necessarily easily. The correct analogy to other alleged routes to knowledge is not boldly hiking where no one has gone before, but thinking you can visit Mars by sitting at home wishing about it instead of going to the trouble of inventing a spaceship.

Maybe positivists have “defined” scientific knowledge as the only kind. Fortunately, I am not a positivist. I have given ample proofs of the necessity for reason. Peter has not yet attempted to refute them.

As for physical learning, I’m sure that even positivists can play tennis! Indeed, physical training, though it is only partially at a conscious level, is yet another example of my Inquiry Method, as it involves learning by experiment what does and does not work in the real world.

Reason does not fail the test of reality. No other model is seen to be better. That scientists often make bad philosophers is sad but true. Furthermore, I find it irritating that Peter “recalls” that I “poured scorn” on their subjectivist views of quantum mechanics. I did not merely scorn them, I disproved them. Their error is very simple, involving an obvious failure to distinguish between the means of observation and the presence of an observer. If I have made a mistake in my proof, I welcome Peter’s or anyone else’s counter-arguments.

Peter claims that art and lack of consensus prove the deficiencies of reason.

Future Philosophical Reflections will look at the purpose of art, but for now I’ll just say that the valid purpose of the fine arts is “soul food”. That means, to bring to people’s immediate sensory/emotional perception the values and virtues they need in their lives, to show them how life can and should be lived, to inspire them with a view of what men and existence can be at their best. Art is not a primary source of knowledge. Art is a reflection or embodiment of the artist’s philosophy, and as such, anything the artist teaches us is the result of that philosophy. A confused, unexamined or life-hating philosophy will reflect itself in art of the same quality: a rational philosophy will reflect itself in great art (given talent!). Basically, any truths we gain from art are the fruits of reason, whether ours or someone else’s. A different way of presenting truth does not imply a different process for reaching it.

Lack of consensus is an interesting point, though not in the way Peter argues. The best he can conclude is not that mysticism has any value, but that there are no “ultimate truths”, or they are forever beyond us. Of course, much of Philosophical Reflections has been spent refuting those destructive notions. But against the few years over the centuries when the flame of reason burned, lie the 40,000 to 500,000 years (depending on your definitions) in which humanity was ruled by mysticism. If mysticism could tell us anything, we should know it by now. In those dark millennia of mysticism, all we got was living in hovels, under the heel of a king ruling our bodies with a sword, and priests ruling our minds with mystical claims.

Part of the reason for no “consensus”, apart from the actual rarity of people who rigorously seek the truth via reason, is that it isn’t that simple! It is no mystery that Aristotle, for all his brilliance, made many errors, or that Newton did not solve all the mysteries of science that he could have. People are fallible, and the commonest trap is failure to recognise an unproved assumption for what it is, and question it. The uses of reason, from science to philosophy to art, are not some simple mechanical matter of plugging the laws of logic into an adding machine and waiting for the answers to pop out. Science and philosophy are highly creative processes.

The deeper reason is that most people, and especially most philosophers, don’t want to live by reason, and spend their lives evading it. They, like Peter, want some kind of mystical pipeline to the truth. Thus, the last few hundred years of systematic philosophy have been dedicated to an attack on existence and the mind’s ability to know it. Hardly surprising that the result is modern education, post-modern art, nihilist philosophy and fascist politics. The root of this tragedy is not the failure of reason, but the desire for the unearned: the unearned in mind (causeless mystical knowledge), the unearned in spirit (causeless love and self-esteem) and the unearned in matter (causeless wealth, taken by force from those who created it). That basest of desires, the desire to be rewarded according to want not according to justice, is the root cause of all the confusion and angst in men’s minds, and of all the innocent blood spilled over the centuries.

It is interesting the Peter approves of Zen. I am told that in its favour, Zen was a flame of creativity in a rigid feudal society. A pity that flame was so wasted. Zen koans prove nothing, except as illustrations of the meaninglessness of paradoxes, equivocations and slippery definitions. The Zen masters themselves were indeed fine examples of mystics: men who devoted their lives to disabling men’s minds, while living on handouts created by the grace of whatever minds remained.

Men of reason have given us an amazing standard of living, the Enlightenment, and the recognition of personal liberty and individual rights. Look around you at your televisions, computers, cars and aeroplanes, your abundant food, your safe comfortable houses and the protection of the rule of objective law, however degraded it is today. This is what reason has given us. I am still waiting for one concrete example (as opposed to generalities) of a truth arrived at outside of the use of reason and how you know it is true, outside of the use of reason.

Finally, contrast the failure of the millennia of anti-reason philosophies to reach answers to the “ultimate” questions, with what reason can achieve. The philosophy of Objectivism, the philosophy of reason, does answer those questions. I have presented those answers and their proofs in Philosophical Reflections . If anyone disputes those proofs, I’d be delighted to see your refutations!

For the earlier debate with Mr PB, see The Source of Knowledge.
© 1995, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.