The Getting of Wisdom

Philosophical Reflections II

Having decided that I must try to gain knowledge about the world unless and until I discover I can’t, how do I go about it? My consciousness has four primary resources: senses, memory, logic and bodily action. The interaction of these gives me an Inquiry Method.

My senses give me primary information about the world. They are not completely reliable nor of infinite power. Nevertheless, by any tests I care to perform they are sufficiently reliable and powerful to give me “true” information about the external world: if I see a tree and walk toward it, I will be unable to walk through it (even if I shut my eyes). That is, the external world impinges on me in ways consistent with what my senses tell me. To anyone who disputes the reliability of our senses at this fundamental level, I make the challenge: perform the described experiment with the tree or cliff of your choice!

Memory is simply the preserved store of previous experiences and conclusions. Like my senses, it is neither completely reliable nor infinitely powerful, but is still quite adequate at the level of determining basic information about the world. I remember that fire can burn me: I can confirm this as often as I like! I remember that breathing is essential: that memory is always confirmed. I drive my car according to my memory: it acts as I expect.

Logic allows me to make sense of what I find, to reach conclusions and determine consequences. Without it, I could reach no conclusions about anything, and do nothing with any confidence. Indeed, logic is fundamental to my consciousness: the very act of thinking, which defines my consciousness, requires it. Clearly, I have no choice but to accept the validity of logic itself: to deny it would be to accept a deadly flaw at the centre of my ability to cope with existence, to deny the Prime Axiom (not that any of this has any meaning in the absence of logic!). Logic is so fundamental that if it were not basically valid, I would find out very soon.

Deductive logic has limited power: given some “facts”, I can deduce valid conclusions which I know are true if those “facts” are true. The deepest levels of understanding, of the principles and laws which govern the world, require experiments . These are the basis of most inductive learning, from the nervous level (for example, learning to walk and talk are extended experiments on which nervous impulses give what results) to the cognitive level (any understanding of abilities, qualities and consequences requires it). Refinement of the principles behind this has led to the scientific method, the single most powerful means of inquiry (according to my memories!) developed by the mind of man. Basically, one thinks of a theory which accounts for some of the “facts” about the world; by the laws of logic, one deduces the implications of that theory; then one does experiments to find out whether those implications are true or false.

Theories, Truth & Consequences

What do the results of an experiment tell me? If the implications of my theory are disproved, then my theory as stated is false. If the implications are verified then my theory is supported. The level of support depends on circumstances. To the extent that my predictions are precise, detailed, and unique to my theory, my theory is supported strongly. To the extent that my predictions are vague, general or explained by other theories, my theory is supported weakly if at all. That is: the more falsifiable my theory (the wider the set of conceivable results which would disprove it and the narrower the set that would support it), the more confident I can be in it if it is “confirmed”. If my theory is not falsifiable at all – if it “explains” anything and hence any possible observation is consistent with it – then a “positive” result lends it no support at all!

The basic validity of this “scientific method” is implicit in the Second Absolute and the Prime Axiom. The Second Absolute implies that reality is sufficiently independent from my consciousness that my ideas can be tested against it. The Prime Axiom requires that reality is not capricious, but has rules against which hypotheses succeed or fail consistently. However, the degree to which these conditions are met is not implicit: the success of the method will, therefore, depend on how “hard” reality actually is.

The “harder” reality is, the more invariant and absolutely independent of my consciousness it is; the “softer” it is, the more capricious and/or susceptible to my whims and wishes it is. Since my Inquiry Method will work only if reality behaves consistently with true ideas, but not in accordance with false ones, its success or failure – its ability to generate a consistent, powerful interpretation of the world – will be a direct test of the hardness of reality.

These, then, are the features of the Inquiry Method:

  1. On the face of it, it is very powerful;
  2. Using it is self-testing: if it fails to work, it is wrong;
  3. The harder reality is (and therefore the more useful learning about reality will be), the more successful it will be.

Given these features plus the Prime Principle, as a rational being I have no choice but to proceed according to this method. If it is wrong, then sooner or later it will come unstuck. If it is right, then it will succeed and I can become ever more confident in it. I can never know absolutely that the method is right, but it cannot be rational to act otherwise until and unless it fails.

Tales, Intuitions & Revelations:

Other external sources of information are available to me: what people tell me; what I read; and my own intuitions, which encompass hunches, inspirations, even revelations. What is their role?

I call intuition “external”, because although it is a mental function, it is not a conscious one. To think, judge and evaluate are abilities of my consciousness, but I can’t consciously “intuit”: I must wait for intuition to come to me. The best I can do is set up a conducive mental state.

Therefore, as these secondary sources originate outside the purview of my consciousness, my consciousness cannot accept any of them “on faith”. My consciousness must obey the Prime Principle: its function is to check and evaluate all my sources of information with respect to reliability and accuracy, as best it can. Of course, it must continually evaluate the core elements of the Inquiry Method too. However, the difference is that those must be assumed until and unless they are proved wrong: because they are true fundamentals, so intimately entwined with my consciousness that without them, it could not operate at all.

Without senses, I would not even know the external world existed, let alone be able to deal with it. Without memory, I could only react moment to moment, with no idea of what I was doing or why. Without logic, my consciousness could not even function. Without any power of bodily action (including speech), I could not test any of my ideas, nor could anything I learned help me survive. That the basic validity of all these core elements can be reconfirmed virtually at any time, is another consequence of their fundamental nature.

The secondary sources certainly are important. Information from other people and from books, not to mention the Internet, is a major part of learning. Intuition is a vital part of generating theories. However, they are less fundamental than the Inquiry Method: therefore, I must judge the former by the latter.

So Where Do We Stand?

I have demonstrated that it is possible to develop a firm foundation on which to build an inquiry into the nature of the world. The foundation is firm, because no one able to argue the point can rationally dispute it. In summary, the four basic points (and who must accept them) are:

Absolute 1: my consciousness exists (any conscious being)

Absolute 2: a world independent of that consciousness exists (any conscious being with senses)

Prime Principle & Axiom: I must & can learn about that world (any embodied consciousness who wishes to live)

Inquiry Method: senses, memory, logic and experiment (anyone who is unwilling to run into trees, step off cliffs or jump into fires)

As noted previously, only the two Absolutes are necessarily true. The Prime Axiom and the Inquiry Method are self-testing assumptions, which must be assumed (at least initially), but then are tested and validated by their very use.

Having established this foundation, we can proceed to examine the nature of the world. Is it real, or illusion; hard, or soft? What are the limits of knowledge? These questions are addressed in later chapters.

© 1992, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.