Oh, Sly Hippo! Corrective Lenses

In a 2-part article in Tableaus, DKR first related a parable of a “rationalist” philosopher unable to answer the objections of a doubter, then argued against certainty and the efficacy of reason.

In “Philosophical Corrections” Part 1, DKR invented one “Onan Taurus”. The name seems deserved, as Taurus uses my words about reality and reason without properly understanding their meaning. Hence he is unable to answer simple questions, even when they are plain logical fallacies.

But if Taurus is meant as a parody of me, then calling his school the Lyceum – the school of Aristotle, the greatest of the philosophers – is a compliment indeed!

As it is simplest to assume that Taurus is intended to be a spokesman of my philosophy, and the anonymous bystander to represent DKR’s views, I’ll proceed on that basis.

DKR argues, “does it not follow [from not claiming to be necessarily right about everything] that some of your beliefs must be wrong?” Obviously not. Recognising the possibility of error does not imply there is an error. If I buy lotto every week I might win a million dollars, but it doesn’t follow that I have or will.

DKR’s fundamental error is calling me a Rationalist, when I am an Objectivist. Rationalists attempt to deduce the nature of reality from a priori assumptions. Objectivists learn about reality by looking at reality and applying reason to what they see. This error spawns DKR’s argument that one can’t base a philosophy on reality if one doesn’t know “exactly what reality is”, where that is to understand the complete nature of reality down to its most fundamental physical components.

That is completely upside down.

Learning the nature of the fundamental constituents of matter and energy, etc., can only be achieved by a long and difficult chain of inductive reasoning using ever more sophisticated tools for investigating the nature of things. It is the result of a philosophy of reality and reason, not its starting point. The starting point is what we see and otherwise sense. We do not need to know atomic theory to know that a table exists and is a solid object – but it is only by the recognition of observable facts such as tables exist and are solid objects, that we can eventually arrive at the atomic theory which explains those facts.

Similarly, the qualities of reality which affect philosophy are induced from the world around us, and beyond the level that affects what we do, deeper causes aren’t germane. For example, that Man is a thinking being matters, but the exact neurological basis of thinking doesn’t. That we think is vital; how to think is vital; but it doesn’t matter what the cellular causation of thinking is. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to philosophy whether objects are made of atoms or wrinkled quintessence: all that matters is that objects in reality have a nature and act accordingly. The details are the concern of science, not philosophy.

DKR’s main thesis is to deny certainty, though he does seem surprisingly confident about it. So much so that he asserts that anyone who fancies himself wise is a fool. Such blithe dismissal of wisdom is bold, but as sensible as saying that anyone fancies himself intelligent is an idiot.

Those who deny certainty are thereby merely confessing that they are uncertain, which means they cannot trust the results of their own thinking processes. It is wise to believe them. But for reasons I have discussed amply before, reason and reality are such that proper inductive reasoning does enable certainty within the context of your observations, and more: the rules of inductive reasoning allow you to know what you know, why you know it, and what you can’t be sure of. Thus, a confession of chronic uncertainty cannot be parlayed into a general principle that nobody can be certain: all it is, and can be, is a confession of one’s own lack of understanding of the rules of inductive reasoning.

In Part 2, DKR claims that reasoning can lead us astray, and ultimately leads us into a blind alley where it proves useless. For proof, he first offers an example of invalid reasoning (people who asserted that the earth was flat – when even the ancient Greeks, with no special equipment, could work out that it wasn’t). Examples of invalid reasoning do not invalidate all reasoning.

DKR then proceeds to argue his case against certainty, continuing to rely on facts of which he is confident, mainly regarding quantum mechanics. For those interested, I have analysed the invalid philosophies attracted by quantum mechanics elsewhere (e.g. see Philosophical Reflections 4). But basically, the mysteries DKR cites are simply understood by realising that quanta propagate as waves but their energy can only be absorbed at a single location, as if they were particles.

We do not need to further analyse the nuts and bolts of quantum mechanics here, as it is hard to imagine a better proof of the efficacy of reason applied to the evidence of our senses, than quantum mechanics. How on earth did man come to derive quantum mechanics, the most precisely confirmed theory in history, when on face value it is so weird and hard to relate to everyday experience? By a rigourous process of objectivity, of reason applied to evidence.

It is not that the universe is obliged to conform to human logic, but that human reason (non-contradictory identification) conforms to the universe (non-contradictory existence). Perhaps reasoning in the rationalistic sense DKR seems to think of it leads into blind alleys. But objective reasoning, based not on reason in a vacuum but reason applied to our experience of reality, can only lead to greater understanding. As it has, throughout history.

And what of an “open mind”? To be objective, one must have an open mind – in the sense of being open to new evidence. To be objective is to place nothing between reality and your reason: thus it is also to have an independent mind. But a mind which refuses to know what it knows, and clings to doubt despite the evidence, is not an open mind, just another closed one: closed to evidence, in order to cling to an a priori faith in uncertainty.

© 2004 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.