I’ve been debating with myself the last few days about what my first substantive post here should be. I’ve got no lack of things to write about, certainly—the post ideas have been accumulating for a while, to the point where I have an extensive (and slightly intimidating) list of ideas for the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to writing each one of these posts, and I’m not really one to complain about having an overabundance of ideas, but it does make it a bit tougher to figure out exactly where to start. It makes sense to me, though, to start at the source, to talk a little more about the frame in which I’m likely to do most of my writing.
Continued below the fold.
“Ways of Knowing”
I don’t mean to harp on this notion of the value of human reason, but these days, a lot of people seem to be convinced that they need a justification for it. That is to say that in the public sphere, there is a widespread belief that reason (and by extension, science) is only one among a variety of “ways of knowing,” and that as a corollary to this, it’s no more valid than any other “way of knowing.” As you might expect, the alternate “way of knowing” (heaviest and most cynical finger-quotes here) that people generally have in mind is faith, something about which I’ll have quite a bit to say in future posts, but suffice it to say right now that faith is defined as belief for which there is no material or rational basis. I don’t want to turn this into a treatise on reason vs. faith—that’ll come later—but when faith is being claimed as a competing source of knowledge, it’s hard not to talk about it and about how absurd it is to claim knowledge of the world as a possible product of it. The only sources of real knowledge (by any epistemological definition) accessible to humans on a broad scale are empirical observation and deductive logic. Perhaps some people can attain some sort of knowledge via spiritual revelation or mysticism, but such things have never been well verified as ways of finding things out about the world (i.e. things that can be verified as true knowledge by anyone other than the one making the claim).
I believe in the primacy of rationality for two main reasons.
Soundness of the System
The first is that rationality is, when taken as a system, infallible. Given true premises and sound logic, reason will always come to the same conclusion—the right one, assuming a world in which there are consistent natural principles dictating things. (I suppose I should write a defense of metaphysical naturalism at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it’s the only coherent way for us to understand and live in the world—to assume consistent, potentially knowable principles.) Obviously the vast majority of the issues of this world exist in various gray areas, so things become more complicated in terms of evaluating the truth of a premise or the validity of an overall train of logic, but reason/logic as a system is unassailable.
The obvious difficulty is in applying an objective framework of mathematical logic and proof systems to a world in which reducing complex issues to simple logical statements would take a lifetime. Deductive reasoning (reasoning in which the conclusion is in terms no more general than those of the premise) is wonderful for simple, closed systems, and really it’s still pretty wonderful for larger and more complex systems; the reality, though, is that the scope of the universe is so large that even if inductive reasoning is by definition partially speculative, that speculation must be seen as a necessary tool for understanding the parts of the world about which we can’t yet reason deductively. This requires, of course, that we recognize the epistemic status of such reasoning, which is to say it requires that we maintain a healthy scientific skepticism. This necessity of recognizing the epistemic status of one’s claims is, to my mind, of utmost and universal importance; knowledge must be recognized as knowledge, belief as belief, probability as probability, speculation as speculation. The fact that inductive reasoning about the future or the past or a distant land is speculative doesn’t make it useless, it just means we need to recognize it as probability-based reasoning rather than certainty-based reasoning.
The second reason is that, as I said above, logic (and empirical observation, if we grant the general accuracy of human senses, which is another one of those necessary fundamental assumptions in order to function in the world) is the only real universal discourse to which we have access. Any discussion of complex issues of morality or philosophy becomes meaningless if it’s based on something, say a set of personal beliefs, not held in common by all the participants in the system. Belief is not a reflection of reality, per se, but of the believer’s view of that reality. It is not and can never be a universal mode of discourse, because it is so fundamentally subjective, bearing no strict relation to the world in which we all live. Only reason can function as that universal, as a reliable foundation for understanding and discussing and conceptualizing the world on anything other than a purely individual/internal level—and for the vast majority of us, this is a social world, so we do need some common ground.
The Pragmatic Argument
The fact of the matter is that even people who hold profoundly irrational beliefs, who advocate the teaching of creationism as science or what have you—even these people structure their lives according to their powers of reasoning. The disturbingly widespread belittling of rationality is as hypocritical as it is wrongheaded; we all make thousands of decisions, minuscule to monumental, based on our powers of reason and on our rational belief that the ground we see in front of us is really there, that the door will open when we turn the handle, that there is a force called gravity that would likely result in something bad happening to us if we jumped off of an 18-story building. As best we can tell, reason works. It gives us an advantage in the world to be able to observe and extrapolate, to make informed decisions. It allows us to better our lives and the lives of those around us, if we happen to care about that. It lets us develop agriculture and medicine and technology and industry. We can argue about whether or not it makes us human, but it seems to me that the ability to reason (or at least the degree to which we can reason) is about the best candidate we have for what separates us from caterpillars and cocker spaniels. It may not be what makes us happy in a direct way, but it certainly allows us the luxury of worrying about happiness—of having and indulging desires beyond the desire to survive. Surely this must be a good thing, something worthy of our respect . . and even our faith.
(Postscript: Making such a generalized argument as this was not really my first choice, nor do I expect it to be the most interesting or controversial thing I’ll write. As I sifted through my list of posts-to-be, though, I felt it was necessary to set out exactly why I believe in the value of reason, since it’s sort of the cornerstone of a lot of what I plan to say, and also since it has come under attack in so many ways of late. There are sentences and phrases in this to which I need to devote entire posts, and that will be done in the hopefully-near future. For now, this can serve as a broader explanation.)