1. Reason as Absolute
In providing a summary of her own philosophy, Ayn Rand stated:
"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 achievements as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." --Ayn Rand in the appendix to Atlas Shrugged.
The first three tenets and their relativistic terms--"heroic," "happiness," and "productive"-- are necessarily arbitrary, subjective evaluations, and cannot describe a standard founded in objective reality. Nothing can be defined using those terms, save in its comparative relationship to some other subjectively evaluated condition. Without addressing those three, we will here consider the last, since it relates to an essential first step towards any philosophy, political or otherwise, created by human intellect, i.e., an understanding of the role of the intellect itself.
In declaring reason as man's only absolute, Rand was making the point that it is through reason that man makes progress in knowledge and understanding, not through feelings or the authority of religious revelation or the pronouncements of any other kind of authority. Reason is the only means by which man can rightly govern his life and make the choices necessary for his optimum existence. It is the only means by which he can properly deal with reality, which she viewed as "objective," as opposed to the subjectivity of feelings and imagined states of mind in which reality is sometimes said to be a creation of our consciousness. Hence, she called her philosophy "Objectivism."
Unfortunately, in her eagerness to stamp out all subjectivity, she erred in the other direction, and in declaring reason an absolute, in fact raised it to a level of trustworthiness that cannot be sustained. Reason became to her an absolute because it is the only valid means of comprehending reality. But reason itself is highly unreliable and can only be viewed as an absolute through an abstract process which is as separate from reality as any subjective concept. What Rand apparently failed to include as a part of her philosophy is the fact that reason, however indispensable, is itself flawed in its real-world uses. It can be as wily and slippery as an eel, and will only become a path to self-deception if thought of in any way as an absolute.
Jefferson and Reason
Jefferson was certainly an advocate of reason and its employment in the government of human affairs. The whole idea of democratic self-government was that it was based on reason in its operation, not on force, and without reason, self-government could not exist.
"Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.It is this reliance on reason that made republican government superior to all others.
"The preeminence of representative government [is maintained] by showing that its foundations are laid in reason, in right, and in general good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1810.But for Jefferson, there was nothing absolute about reason; reason is a tool for testing what is natural and true.
"Questions of natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.
And it is truth that is the primary aim. Reason is merely a means for getting there, a way of discovering and refining truth.
"We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, 1820.
Rightful government would result from a face-off with any difficulty if its course is determined by the investigations of reason.
"I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte Diodati, 1789.
Reason is the tool to be used in guiding the course of government by its legislative councils. The true worth of reason is made manifest in collective activities, i.e., when the reason of one person is tested against the reason of another.
"It is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own action." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786.
The conclusions of reason are not justified by conformance to some absolute standard, some abstract, final determinator of right and wrong, but by the process of reason itself.
To all this, the Objectivist would likely respond that he is in total agreement. But the disagreement comes in practice and in the idea that reason can produce an absolute result.
I am not an expert on Obectivism, but as I understand it, the Objectivist would not agree with the above statement, but would say to this that "reality" is the "absolute standard" that decides between two or more conclusions. Thus the process of reason IS therefore justified by conformance to it (reality).
You are right, and I should have made the statement clearer. What happened was, I was taking a short-cut without properly drawing a reference to a point made elsewhere, which was that "Reality" cannot decide anything. You cannot dial 911 and ask to speak to Miss Reality and have her tell you the answer. In every case, reality is determined by the process of reason, which means in every case one person's reason must be weighed against another person's reason. The process is less obvious, of course, when the answers are simple and uncontroversial, but it is much less as simplistic as the Objectivist's would have it when real thought is required. For example (and to use a simple-minded illustration that debaters love), if one person says that 2+2=4 and another says that 2+2=5, we can say we will let reality decide and get a sack of apples and count the total that results when we combine two apples plus two apples. But it is an entirely different matter if the question is, "What is the fairest and most just way to assess taxes for the necessary expenses of a national government?" If to someone's conclusion on such a complex question we say, "We'll let reality decide!" then the question becomes What reality? Whose reality? Only the best, most convincing arguments of reason can bring us to a decision on such vital questions, and even then, a generally agreed conclusion can be overturned by better more convincing reason. We might wish that we could call up "Miss Reality" and get an absolute answer to difficult questions, but alas, she doesn't exist.
The Limitations of Reason
Objectivists will often cite Jefferson's statements in support of reason, but then omit his many cautions on its limitations, as when he wrote:
"I have learned to be less confident in the conclusions of human reason, and give more credit to the honesty of contrary opinions." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824.
Indeed, there is nothing absolute in the individual's conclusions drawn from the use of reason. The conclusions of reason are at best tentative because reason is always subject to misapplication and error.
As before, I think the Objectivist would say that reason is tested against "reality," via the laws of logic (e.g., the Law of Non-contradiction, and the Law of Excluded Middle), which are the only way to determine reality. Perhaps this is a circular argument on their part?
It could be considered circular, if it is postulated that the laws of logical reasoning are derived from reality, and therefore reason is tested against reality as judged by the laws of logic. But the problem in all this is that reason is being treated as an abstract ideal, not as a practical human function that exists nowhere in an absolute sense, and its conclusions cannot be determined by any absolute mechanism. Reason is basically a boot-strap operation: by a kind of trial and error, it determines for itself how close it is to an approximation of reality, and its determinations never have the finality we might expect from something we consider absolute.
As Jefferson wrote regarding reason and its lack of absoluteness in any practical sense:
"In every country where man is free to think and to speak, differences of opinion will arise from difference of perception, and the imperfection of reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801.
And that error can only be sifted out when reason is tested, not against itself, but against the reason of others in the unrestrained free market-place of ideas.
"Our people in a body are wise because they are under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802.
Reason is not absolute, but is a progressive development in every human consciousness and in society itself. Indeed, rather than being an absolute, reason leads to deeper and better insights as reason is tested against reason.
"Liberty... takes root and growth in the progress of reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.
Certainly, in an individual's private life, he is and must be led by his own reason. This lays the foundation for personal responsibility.
"Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808.
Thus, everything should come before the bar of reason.
"Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.
But while an individual must be led by his own reason, he cannot assume that his reason is absolute in any social situation. He must acquiesce in society when overruled by the reason of everyone else, even if he cannot agree with everyone else.
If this is meant in a pragmatic sense, i.e that they will be imprisoned or killed if they do not acquiesce, the Objectivist's will agree, because they do not believe in "martyrdom." But if it means that they must accept society's reason as "right," they will strongly disagree. They will bring up examples of society deciding through reason that it's alright to steal, and say they would never "acquiesce" to that. If they are to assume you did mean it in the pragmatic sense, I think they'll see it as an obvious point not worth making.
A society NEVER determines what is right and wrong by its majority (something the anti-majority rulers can't quite seem to grasp); "majority rule" is nothing more than a mechanism for making decisions by a whole people. One person can be "right," even though 250 million people are against him. At the same time, it is a little more than merely pragmatism that demands this acquiescence. If a society is to function as a society and not break up into warring factions on every difference of opinion, members must accept this mechanism and then do whatever they can to change the majority if they think the majority is wrong. Sometimes this may even require civil disobedience, but the purpose is always to change constituted authority, not to overthrow it. For without the constituted authority of the people (as well as their representatives) acting through their majority, the whole mechanism of republicanism is lost, and government is reduced to one of military force, since that in the final analysis is the only rule that will avoid chaos if minority rule holds sway.
The individual makes a grave error if he assumes that reason is absolute and can lead to absolute conclusions; he thereby forms an intolerance that makes association difficult, if not impossible. This assumption that reason itself can somehow transcend the human frailty of the reasoner makes no allowance for other people with equal rights reaching different conclusions.
"Every man's reason is his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814.
Reasoning is not just an individual, but a group effort when employed in politics, and it frequently requires some individuals to compromise on the conclusions reached by their own reason.
"A government held together by the bands of reason only, requires much compromise of opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824.
Indeed, reason in and of itself is always suspect, because reason, far from being absolute, is easily subjected to distortion by self-interest.
"The known bias of the human mind from motives of interest should lessen the confidence of each party in the justice of their reasoning." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ross, 1786.
And because reason is such a wily attribute, Jefferson valued integrity above the reputed soundness of reason.
"[We] know too well the texture of the human mind, and the slipperiness of human reason, to consider differences of opinion otherwise than differences of form or feature. Integrity of view, more than their soundness, is the basis of esteem." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.
Integrity of view, i.e., internal consistency, more than soundness, i.e., apparent rightness (almost always an intuitive and prejudiced judgment), is the basis of esteem, i.e., worthy of respect. Because of the easy fallibility of reasoning, Jefferson had little difficulty putting his own conclusions aside when confronted by the reasoning of others, knowing that his own reason was not an entirely reliable resource, and that no intelligent person should rely upon it absolutely.
"I see too many proofs of the imperfection of human reason to entertain wonder or intolerance at any difference of opinion on any subject, and acquiesce in that difference as easily as on a difference of feature or form, experience having long taught me the reasonableness of mutual sacrifices of opinion among those who are to act together for any common object, and the expediency of doing what good we can when we cannot do all we would wish." --Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, 1803.
Morality itself is not dependent on reason alone or even chiefly.
"The moral sense... is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.
If we say that reason is absolute and that he who reaches erroneous conclusions is not using reason, then we have redefined reason in terms of its results instead of as a process of mind. But such remedies are only a way of establishing bias, because there is no criteria of reason outside of the human mind, and when it decides that it is in possession of "true reason," who is there that can overturn such a judgment?
Reason, therefore, is hardly an absolute save in an abstract, idealized sense. In real terms, confidence in reason easily becomes the path to self-deception, especially when it is viewed as an absolute. Every bigot is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his positions, and looks upon those who differ from him as mentally defective. But reality and truth are the only true absolutes, and reason that is not in service to truth becomes mere rationalization, sophistry, self-justification, and self-deception.
It is ridiculous to argue that reason is invalid because the conclusions one reaches may sometimes be invalid. There is nothing wrong with saying that another's "reasons" or "reasoning" is faulty, but to dismiss reason, as an un-trustworthy faculty is insane. Better to trust the judgement of others? Put it all to a vote? As such, reality is what everyone "agrees" that it is? Thank you sir, you've defined "insanity" in terms I've never contemplated.
The title of this essay is "Reason as Absolute," and the purpose was to show that reason is not, in any realistic, practicable sense, in any way "absolute." Nowhere was it said that reason is invalid. In fact, the word "invalid" does not occur in this essay. But the objection forms a perfect illustration of how deceptive reason can be, especially to oneself. Even though reason was nowhere described as invalid, yet Globocop, in his reasoning processes, inserted that word into his description of the point of this essay.
But what the essay tries to point out is that reason, though invaluable and indispensable, is nevertheless NOT absolutely reliable; that it is easily trumped by bias, self-interest, prejudice, misconception, emotion and anything else that causes an individual to turn from the truth and build a case against it. This happens so frequently, that the intelligent person always views his own reasoning with a certain grain of salt, realizing that it may be distorted by any of those causes that influence us, often unawares, and that he will never assume that his reasoning is "absolute." And if no single person's reasoning is ever "absolute," when is reason itself ever an absolute? Thus, the real truth seeker always has an open mind to those who disagree with him, realizing that he is more likely to get a better understanding of whatever is at issue from opposing opinions than he is from those who agree with him.
But all of this is just a kind of wariness. It would be, of course, silly to discard one's own reasoning and automatically and always adopt the judgment of others or just accept what most people think. But just like Jefferson suggested, if one finds that most people disagree with one's own reasoning, it is a good idea to take a second look and to question oneself. That is the prudent course of action, because reason is NOT absolute, and because it is foolish even to think that it is.
I believe there is a big misunderstanding here regarding your understanding of the Objectivist position on reason. I understand the Objectivist position as follows: Reason, "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses" is absolute. (Note that the word ‘reason’ is both, according to my dictionaries, used properly as a noun and a verb. It is the former sense in which Objectivism uses the term.) However, Ayn Rand DID believed one can misuse their rational faculty, and this is the reason that she was concerned with epistemology (the subject of the book introduction to objectivist epistemology), and a proper method of using ones rational faculty (Logic).
"...a process of thought is not automatic nor ‘instinctive’ nor involuntary--nor infallible." --Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics. Additionally, Miss Rand recognizes that certainty is contextual. So that "confidence in reason..., especially when it is viewed as an absolute" is NOT AT ALL the Objectivist viewpoint. But rather confidence in reason (verb) is only possible viewed in a CONTEXT, NOT as an absolute. Such a position (absolute standard) would require the standpoint of omniscience, and this is not objectivism. This is a very important point.
What this says, then, is that reason as an abstract entity, unrelated to anything practical and experienced in the real world, is absolute. This element, Reason, thus is defined as an abstract category that has no observable existence in the real world. But once you define abstract categories, their characteristics are determined, not by reality, but by your abstract definition. By plucking Reason out of the real world, you can give it any characteristic you wish, if you properly adjust your abstract conditions.
What we see, then, is that in abstracting Reason, we only create conditions for circular reasoning and double-talk, which offer nothing philosophically profound. Reason becomes merely part of an abstract system, unrelated to everyday, earthly reality. Any value it might have to understanding the human condition would then be completely accidental. If we are to "let reality decide," why not on this issue?
Ayn Rand believed that the process of reason was an absolute good. She did not believe that the products of reason were absolute (i.e. 1) always true or 2) absolutely true).
She writes: ". . . a process of thought is not . . . infallible" (The Objectivist Ethics).
When Ms Rand separates the process of reason from the products of reason, she turns reason into an abstraction. One can certainly speak of the process of reason as separate from the products of reason, but when one does that, it is purely analytical, abstract, and disassociated with reality. In the real world, there can be no processes of reason without products of reason. No one can provide an example of a process of reason apart from a product of reason.
Philosophy is concerned with reality and truth. As a matter of reality, separating the process of reason and the products of reason is like separating human beings and their attributes. You can do that as a matter of speaking and for analytical purposes, of course. But if you are studying reality in an effort to arrive at truth, you cannot separate these things and treat the separation as real, which Rand does when she says that reason is the only absolute. Human beings do not exist apart from their attributes, neither does the process of reason exist apart from the products of reason -- not in the real world, at least. When you split them up, you are no longer dealing with reality but with an abstract intellectual system.. It is a non-existent invention of the mind, and it will almost certainly lead to misunderstanding and error.
If a person is trying to understand reality (which is the very purpose of philosophy), it is necessary to adhere to truth from the very beginning and with respect to the most basic premises. To do otherwise is only to build a system based on distortion. Such a system may appear brilliant in its details, but being founded on false premises, it can only mislead. Nothing valid or good could result from such a system. There is every sign that this is, in fact, the case with Ms. Rand's philosophy. Critics are generally dismissed because "they don't understand Rand," which really means they don't accept her distorted premises, which results in a system divorced from reality.
Throughout your essays, you attribute to Ms. Rand the second, and not the first, belief. Your conclusions, even if logically argued, cannot counter Ms. Rand's conclusions, or refer to her arguments, as her first principle has been corrupted.
The point is that Ms Rand's first principle was itself corrupt. It had no valid relationship to reality. I did not attribute one belief over another to Ms Rand. I only attempted to show that her system had no relationship to reality when it ignored the products of reason and treated the process as an abstraction, separate and apart from the products.
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1. Reason as Absolute
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