Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Basic Proof that "Reason is Man's Basic Means of Survival"

[Previous post in the series: "Reason as Man's Basic Means of Survival--A Reduction Attempt"]

Reason as man's basic means of survival— The first thing to say about this is that a child or an animal would not reach this principle—the principle isn't on the level of percepts, thus it wouldn't be obvious from using the five senses. So something else is needed. It will likely be helpful to start with definitions of these terms.

"Reason": the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly, rational ways.

"Man": first-level concept, so only an ostensive definition. (You can point to people, and you don't need to know that man is the “rational animal” to reach this principle--in some sense, this principle is a precondition of that definition.)

"Means": how an aim is achieved.

"Basic": something that acts as a base or starting point from which higher-level things are constructed upon.

"Survival": continuing to live despite problems, hardships, adversity, etc.

To begin, we should consider what all living things do all the time. Dogs, cats, horses and men sleep, eat, breathe, run (gallop), respond to sounds, and a plethora of other actions. These (and many more) are first-level generalizations that we gain simply from observations of the relevant animals. And plants, in time, grow from seeds, sprout, spread, grow over and around surrounding objects, and engage in reproduction. These are first-level generalizations too, available in principle to sense-perception. The next logical step is to connect what you know about people and the other animals with what you know about plants (and bacteria, once one knows about them)--that living things as a whole engage in activities that inanimate matter and natural forces never do. This is a second-level or higher-level generalization, not validated by self-evident means such as the process of perception, but rather by reasoning based on the perceptual generalizations I've noted. This integration makes the claims about classes of animals like dogs and humans and about plants stronger, as it points us towards a (if not the) causal factor—the fact that they're alive.

Living dogs sleep, but rocks (upon observation) do not—more importantly, deceased dogs do not sleep, either. There's a causal connection between non-living things and inanimate objects that separates them from entities that are still alive. A piece of gravel or dirt remains motionless and doesn't change in any visible respect unless some outside force acts on it, but people, ants, and even flowers change and move with or without external interference. (Though this motion is much more limited in the flower's case.) Those things that aren't alive cannot carry out a vast number of actions that living things can—this unites dead things with the earlier generalization that inanimate objects cannot do a host of things that living things can, as both dead and inanimate things are classed under the phrase “not alive.” What idea connects the peculiarity of living things' actions with the difference between life and death and between life and non-living things? Self-initiated action and goal-directed action, two ideas which point towards the same actions in living things. Life gives organisms a capacity to self-initiate actions without recourse to external events: animals eat, drink, play, and heal whether the weather was windy, rainy, sunny, or balmy—within a certain range, the events that befall inanimate matter have no significant effect on living creatures. By the same token, these actions are all goal-directed, and the ultimate goal of all such actions are the continuation of life. We learn this generalization from both observation and reasoning. Starvation is what happens to living things when they are deprived of the food needed to make their energy and thus maintain their body; death by bleeding out is what happens when they are deprived of the blood needed for the delivery of substances to the body's cells. When something external injures a living thing, or something internal to the body fails to operate right or is damaged, the living thing can die.

Organisms self-initiate goal-directed actions in order to continue living, and this prevents their death. This explains their peculiarity when compared to the reactions of the dead and inanimate objects. Differences in the kinds of actions of living and non-living things brings us to a key generalization needed for this proof: All living things survive. (This is a necessary generalization needed for the proof, I think.) Life is an ongoing process of self-maintenance, and the world around us presents all sorts of difficulties and obstacles to overcome, whether in the form of natural disasters, other harmful living things, or sheer accidents. Such a realization allows us to connect our concept of “survival” to the forgoing points, particularly to the field of self-initiated, goal-directed actions. This connection allows me to restate a point: Organisms self-initiate goal-directed actions in order to continue living, and this prevents their death, i.e., they carry out this kind of action in order to survive.

This brings us to a generalization that is implicit in this point about survival: survival doesn't happen by chance or through accident, but through a certain means, a certain process. The flight of a bird is its means of survival; running after prey is a wild dog's means of survival; cooking our food before eating it is a means of survival for us. We already know the cause of why animals, plants, indeed, why all living things survive, and that this takes the form of definite courses of actions varying with the kind of living thing being observed: all we need for the next generalization is integration. Every living thing has a means of survival. This is a vast integration, covering all living things that I'm aware of, and all living things that I may ever become aware of.

“Every living thing has a means of survival,” is a broad proposition, and the proposition we're trying to prove is contained within: all that's needed now is to draw out some implications which are currently hidden. (Though I've pointed this out as an “implication,” I'm emphatically not using deduction. I'm still performing an inductive integration.) Observing all forms of life, we notice that not all living things act in the same basic ways—plants have no awareness and take in the substances needed for their survival, while animals direct their attention to the perceptual objects of their environment, and follow mechanisms like pleasure and pain, and people learn about facts far outstripping their limited perceptual field. One observes reeds, flowers, trees, algae, and other plant life, and reaches the generalization that assimilation of substances in the environment is not only a means of survival for plants: it is every plant's basic means of survival. Animals and people assimilate things too, but they survive by utilizing a whole field of new actions which exploit their awareness of their environment, like fish swimming, octopi spraying ink, chameleons camouflaging to elude predators, and wolves forming packs. Without consciousness, an animal would be lost in this world, unable to identify its allies or enemies, its source of food and water, and would be completely oblivious to the ubiquitous dangers confronting a living thing, including its feelings of pleasure and pain. Due to the importance of consciousness for animals, I can generalize that consciousness, for those organisms who possess it, is their basic means of survival. From this step, we could even tie together our knowledge of plants' means of survival and reach a further, more abstract generalization: “every living thing has a basic means of survival.”

Proving that “reason is man's basic means of survival” requires working through the vast generalization that “every living thing has a basic means of survival.” The assimilation inherent in plants takes different forms (e.g. compare an ordinary flower to a Venus fly-trap when it comes to eating); the same is true of conscious beings. Jellyfish are restricted to the sensory stage of consciousness, which they use to react to stimuli from both predators and prey. (This is due to their body-encompassing “nerve net” instead of the central nervous system and brain that we're accustomed to.) Biologically more complex animals like octopodes, cats, eagles, and lions possess the perceptual stage of consciousness. Like us, they aren't aware of mere stimuli, but of persisting things, of objects, of entities, of the environment in which they live. That perceptual animals can't live on the more limited sensations of, say, a jellyfish, is open to observation: just imagine if you had to live off of the impulse of sensations which you couldn't integrate into some kind of thing you could direct your attention to—you'd get nowhere and accomplish nothing, and without assistance you would quickly die. An important point towards the proof I'm reaching is: humans couldn't live on the perceptual stage of consciousness, let alone the sensory stage. What's the relevant difference between other animals and humans that justifies that negative generalization? There are many differences between us and the perceptual animals we study in biology, but we must focus on two fundamental differences that highlights the next step in my induction: (1) the natural endowments of animals compared to us and (2) the control mechanism of the consciousness of animals as opposed to our own.

(1) The other animals naturally have very dangerous weapons and other means of survival that we do not possess, or possess only to a limited extent. Panthers have ferocious claws: we do not; Cheetahs and other animals are blisteringly fast; we're pretty slow; Sharks have multiple sets of razor-sharp teeth, made for tearing flesh; ours are not suited for such a task. Birds can take flight and perform deadly aerial assaults, and fish have gills and fins and can quickly navigate bodies of water; without special instruments and inventions, we cannot do or possess any of these things. The method of survival for the other animals is primarily physical; they utilize their physical advantages to deal with reality to the best of their ability. Rather than relying on our perceptual field, or our fingernails, muscle strength, or agility, we principally rely on our minds. We learn how animals move in the water, and use our minds to develop carbon-fiber fins to mimic them; we discovered the connection between fire and our food, so we can improve the flavor, texture, and tenderness of what we eat, something that other animals haven't grasped. In this “information age,” a good deal of our lives isn't spent foraging for food or finding mates, like other animals, but using inventions of others' minds to interact with people across the world and impact not just our immediate environment, but a whole neighborhood, a town, a country, even the world (as inhabited by humans). And we can spend our time like this because the problems of survival have largely been solved by the minds of others, and this principle is more obvious in the more technological parts of the world; for instance, while other animals and prehistoric men had to hunt, I have the luxury of merely microwaving already hunted, skinned, and prepared/processed food. By contrast to other animals, then, the method of survival for humans is primarily intellectual.

(2) As we've learned from a study of biology and physiology, all bodily functions have control mechanisms. And in the case of humans and other higher animals, the most important functions are controlled by the brain of the organism. With the exceptions of humans, the control of a being's consciousness is also directed by the brain. Animals have an inbuilt capacity to act in certain ways, which the brain automatically makes use of when external conditions call for it, along with the faculty of memory which allows them to learn from the behavior of their parents or other nearby animals. So they learn from their parents (or their siblings or owners) how to stalk their prey (for instance), and then it becomes automatic with an environmental cue, or their instincts will make them act a certain way unerringly. (Like a mother duck's instinctive rejection of a duckling when it smells like a predator.) A significant difference here is that people have no instincts; we can override our biological drive of food or sex, and many of our automatic, subconscious reflexes. Rather than being dominated by instinct, human action, mental and physical, is under our control through the operation of our consciousness. We're able to choose between alternatives, like directing our attention to the outside world or inside our own mind, raising our right or left arm, assessing our own thinking or not. Human consciousness is volitional. But something to consider is that we still wouldn't be much better off if we were restricted to the mental faculties possessed by the other animals. The power of volition only gives us very limited control in the cognitive states we share with animals, and our control over our bodies doesn't create much of a survival advantage than if it were merely instinctive. But volition is the mode of operation for human reason.

The faculty of reason gives us a capacity to form concepts, to think, and to use a method of rational thinking known as “logic.” This allows us to form ideas about the world, to gain conceptual knowledge, and exploit conceptual thinking in ways that the other animals can't even fathom. We live principally by comprehending the world around us, by understanding it with our ideas, and acting in accordance with what we know. We use ideas to learn that certain things are magnets, that things fall because of gravity, that imperceptible germs lead to disease in the body, that we love people because of our values. (This is a lead into the principle that “reason is man's means of gaining knowledge,” but won't be pursued here, merely noted.) And we know all of this because one of the powers of reason is thought, the ability to direct one's cognitive focus on a particular subject or issue for a purpose. It's thinking that allows us to make connections between our ideas and the facts out there, in reality, and this point is obvious to introspection. It's my prior thinking as a small kid which allows me to tie my shoes everyday; it's my thinking over the past four years that allows me to write this essay; it's my prior thinking that allows me to know what will happen if I eat rotten food, or if I sit in cold weather without heat insulation, or if I try to get to know someone. We think and reach conclusions everyday, on myriad issues, such as clothing options, whether or not we want to take a swim, or whether and how much we want to sleep at night. We use reason to comprehend, for instance, that it takes time and energy to cover long distances, and thus to reach enough scientific knowledge to know that a car would make us more efficient in reaching destinations; we use reason to comprehend that germs cause disease, so we invent hand soap and sanitizers to cleanse our bodies of such harmful agents. We use reason to conclude that it's the unrestricted political power of certain individuals that leads to the oppression and suppression of individuals in society, and so we develop a system that limits the power of executive officials and the government. Such focus on the facts of reality explains the success of the science and technology of aviation, of automobiles, of manufacturing, of architecture, and many other fields. If we understand the relevant facts, then there is really nothing stopping us from accomplishing our goals, and not only surviving, but surviving in the way that we truly want to. This is how we reach the induction that “reason is man's basic means of survival.”

[As I wrote this before listening to Dr. Peikoff's presentation of the inductive proof, it doesn't represent the complete proof that was understood and presented by Ayn Rand. The point was to present what *I* think proves this principle, so it would have been counter-productive and rationalistic to simply read what she said, and write this with that understanding in mind. Now that I have listened to the lecture, I'm aware of what's missing in the proof, which I'll correct in a later post. I suggest that others try out this inductive method, too.]

[Next post in the series: "A second proof that 'Reason is Man's Means of Survival'"]

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