1. Reason as Absolute, Cont'd
The Delusion of Certainty
Rand speaks of the supremacy of reason, as in:
"We cannot fight against anything, unless we fight for something--and what we must fight for is the supremacy of reason, and a view of man as a rational being." --Ayn Rand: "Philosophy: Who Needs It"
Thus she calls for and demands that decisions be made on the basis of reason above all other criteria, and rightly so. We should never countenance any decisions made contrary to reason. But when reason is employed in the interactions of people, it is imperative that we abandon all thought of absoluteness. Here, especially, is where reason must be tested, and the testing is as much a part of the reasoning process as thought itself. This is not a place where one contender claims reason for his side, and therefore assumes the other side is in error. Opinion is tested, and reason itself decides the issue. Indeed, a free society can deal with error only if reason is permitted freely to contradict it.
"Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.
This means one person's reason against another's. It is the combat that is essential, not the conclusion by one side that their argument is based on reason. Hence, the use of reason has no absolute value in and of itself; it has value only as part of a process to discover truth. The idea that each individual might put absolute trust in his own reasoning is the height of folly. The "supremacy of reason" is a myth, for we know that reason may be, and always is, used in support of any philosophy. To put an absolute faith in reason is to overlook one essential step in the rational process: the possibility that you may be mistaken. As a Nobel prize-winning scientist said,
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool." --Richard Feynman
Or as Thomas Jefferson put it:
"It is not enough that an individual and an unknown one says and even thinks he has made a discovery of [great] magnitude... Not only explanation, but the actual experiment must be required before we can cease to doubt whether the inventor is not deceived by some false or imperfect view of his subject." --Thomas Jefferson to Shelton Gilliam, 1808.
The intelligent person finds his biggest challenge in dealing with his own tendency toward bias: the possibility that he himself may be "deceived by some false or imperfect view of his subject." More than just logic and reason is required; we want to see the actual results, we want evidence, we want proof. Self-deception is the great danger to be avoided, and the one to which Objectivists are most prone. Read this chilling statement posted by one of Rand's followers on the Prodigy Bulletin Boards:
"I have come to realize that what peaves others the most when they 'discuss' things with us is our uniformly (there's THAT word again) held characteristic of self assurance. It's not so much that we are right that tick's others off, but that we are so CERTAIN that we are right and we are impervious to attacks upon that assurance. None of us (imo) started with self-assurance as a personal goal, but it appears to me to be an inevitable burden which occurs naturally on it's own when reality is seen and accepted and that is coupled with an unrelenting committment to the use of 'valid' reason. The greatest danger faced by Objectivists is that there is a tendency to become so CERTAIN of 'reality-based-morals' that one can easily fall into the trap of thinking, 'Now that I know for absolute certain what is and is not moral action, then [there?] COULD be nothing wrong is [in?] "forcing" others to behave in accordance with the irrefutable moral principles.' Trust me, there is a STRONG tendency to fall into that trap. Despite the fact that I am unshakably certain as to what is moral and not moral (and can prove it), I still fight daily to remind myself that 'moral principles' apply ONLY to the individual who has derived these principles." --Dan Draper
A similar absolutist sentiment was recently expressed in a Usenet Newsgroup by another Rand follower:
"Being convinced of the veracity of Objectivism as an entire philosophical system does not make one 'doctrinaire' in the sense that I think you mean it. Certainty is not dogmatism, contrary to popular belief in our bankrupt culture." --Jason Lockwood
Logic and reason are excellent for analyzing the arguments of others, but they are powerless when up against our own biases and prejudices. The concept of the supremacy of reason is an idealistic, floating abstraction that has no real existence in individual cases, hence no real existence at all. It is a theoretical construct, but its assumption by any specific individual is a delusion, because reason is easily corrupted by the blindness of emotions and self-interest. Rand says with respect to such differences:
"Your mind is your only judge of truth--and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal." --Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged
Her point is, of course, that when there are differences of opinion, objective reality--the facts, what is actually true--is what must determine which opinion is correct.
But reality does not hold court. There is no final arbiter of whose reason is correct, because every such judgment is just the conclusion of someone else's reason. And no human being possesses reason as an absolutely valid attribute. Moreover, reality should not be the "court of last resort." It must be the beginning of all investigation! Without it, interest and ego are established at the very beginning and diminish the chance of ever uprooting error. The contest of reason comes at the commencement, not at the end after ego has established a face-saving vested interest. A truly rational man will always guard against his own tendency toward bias, and will consider vigilance on that front as his primary object.
Reality is objective--of course!--just as Rand says. But that is no help. Any given individual's perception of reality is necessarily subjective because it is his own, and is often clouded by preconception, bias, prejudice, misconception, error, etc. It is not given to us humans to be able to deal absolutely with objective reality. Reality is there, but we can only see it ourselves subjectively, "as through a glass, darkly." Therefore, reason itself is indispensable for guiding the individual in his own affairs, but when used in isolation, it is an imperfect guide. Its fullest value is realized only when it is freely subject to examination, to contrary evidence and to the different opinions of others.
"Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth; and that, I am sure, is the ultimate and sincere object of us both. We both value too much the freedom of opinion sanctioned by our Constitution, not to cherish its exercise even where in opposition to ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815.
Truth is the ultimate, the absolute. The idea that reason is absolute has no application in the real life of an individual. It exists only as a fantasy that no single individual ever gets to experience. The intelligent individual always is aware that his process of reasoning is subject to revision and correction.
I understand what you are saying when you say that reason can not really be trusted, but what you are really saying is that subjectivity is what can not be trusted. Individual interpretations can be very subjective and still use reason as a proof themselves, but in such cases reason is being incorrectly used. Pure reason, based on the facts of reality, will always be correct, and anyone who uses pure, unbiased reason can be sure that they are correct.Eyler Coates
But this is the point. It is not humanly possible for a person to use "pure reason" with practical certainty so that they can know without question that their conclusions are correct. This is not the way the human mind works. Yes, subjectivity cannot be trusted, but we must also add that human beings cannot be certain they are free of subjectivity! They must learn to compensate for its ever-sneaky presence.Joe
The problem that exists is that achieving an unbiased view of reality and using unbiased reason are incredibly difficult.Eyler Coates
It is more than incredibly difficult; it is impossible with 100% certainty. To think otherwise is to fall into self-delusion. It is this very thing that creates the "cult mentality."Joe
In simple matters pure reason can often be employed and people can be absolutely sure that they are right. If you told me that 2+2=5 then I would be absolutely sure that you are wrong; objective reality and reason tells me so.Eyler Coates
2+2=4 is a statement of mathematical fact, and can only be called the conclusion of reason at the simplest, most inconsequential level. And this is the crux of the matter. To assume that a person can move from such a simple piece of elementary knowledge and carry over the results to complex reasoning is itself faulty reasoning. There is no parallel between the two.Joe
The only problem is that in complex situations involving politics and morality and many variables, subjectivity is difficult to avoid. Followers of Objectivism and Ayn Rand must then strive towards achieving the minimum level of bias and becoming as certain of their correctness as possible. Reason in its pure form, without any subjective influences, will always be right and it is possible for people to utilize such a level of reason and logic, and consequently be certain that they are right.Eyler Coates
Even the use of the phrases "minimum level of bias" and "as certain of their correctness as possible" carries an implied admission that 100% certainty is not possible. It may be difficult to convince another that the possibility of absolute certainty is mistaken, but all human experience points to the fact that it just is error of the most elementary sort to assume that absolute certainty is possible in matters of any degree of complexity. Just about all scientific advancement has been made in opposition to what was assumed to be established, absolute truth--especially the great advances.
In truth, nothing is more dangerous than a person who is certain that they are right. These are the persons who throughout history have burned others at the stake for their "error." It is, as Feynman suggested, the easiest trap to fall into for any person doing scientific investigation. It is also the attitude of mind that creates rancorous divisions and causes organizations (including Objectivist organizations) to expel members who question orthodox conclusions and views. It is, in fact, the very definition of intolerance.Yodar
I again will return to the the Objectivist concept of certainty as I understand it. Certainty, according to objectivism, is only possible in context (i.e. taking into account the total knowledge available at the time.) Within context it is possible, according to Objectivism, to know things for certain: to know things from the standpoint of omniscience is not. Therefore, one can know for 100 % certain, lets say, that molecules exist, and they have certain properties. But we only know this by reason AND within context, i.e. the total knowledge we have at this point. If someday someone discovers that the molecules are made of some "sub-sub-atomic stuff," it will not contradict what we know about molecules, but rather build on the knowledge we have established in our previous context. As an example, the discovery of quantum mechanics did not erase our certainty of Newtonian physics within its context. Newtonian physics is still as true on the macroscopic level as it was when it was discovered, quantum mechanics has only enhanced our knowledge. This idea of certainty within context applies to ALL knowledge. It is only when you take omniscience as the standard for certainty that you have to say "100% certainty is not possible," but this is NOT Objectivism.
The proposition that certainty is only possible in context is a form of circular reasoning. It is like saying, Certainty is only possible when conditions are such as to render judgments certain. Even the caveat, "taking into account the total knowledge available at the time," implies an acknowledgement that certainty is never assured, because some new knowledge may pop-up down the pike, and everything we previously thought to be "certain" suddenly is blown away. Certainty thus becomes a relative term: relative to "knowledge available at the time" -- which is about as close to saying nothing as one can get.
I do not consider myself qualified to compare Newtonian with Einsteinian physics. But the little understanding I do have suggests that Einstein's is an entirely different way of understanding gravitation, and replaces, but does not build on, Newton's -- certainly not in the sense that theories related to sub-atomic particles build on or extend, previous atomic theories. Einstein's Relativity explains gravity differently, and explains much more phenomena than was possible with Newton's gravitation theories; hence we assume (for those reasons) that it is a closer approximation of reality.
In any case, the history of science is filled with instances where new theories build on previous "certainties" in some areas, and completely replace and discard previous "certainties" in others. All of which only illustrates that the whole concept of Certainty is meaningless in any absolute, realistic sense. To make assumptions of certainty are sure ways to trap oneself in absurdities, if one is trying to be realistic also. But as demonstrated herein, whether Rand intended the result of not, many of her followers have certainly fallen into the delusion of certainty.
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