Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reason as Man's Basic Means of Survival--A Reduction Attempt

In my unannounced hiatus from writing, I've been listening to Dr. Leonard Peikoff's "Objectivism Through Induction," and working through the main principles of Objectivism inductively, from the evidence in reality I see everyday. For the last two weeks, I've been on a "reason as a tool of survival" walk, observing all the ways that the faculty of reason is crucial to human life, and I'm ready to present some of my findings. The following is my attempt to reduce the basic principle of Objectivism that "reason is man's basic means of survival"--to show what identifications that principle depends on, and what these depend on, all the way down to sense-perception/observation.

Let's start with “reason”: what would we have to know in order to grasp the concept “reason”? One would have to reach the step of self-consciousness, of introspection, not only to understand that one has consciousness or a power of awareness, but to reach the more advanced notion that it has different states or manifestations. These manifestations have different powers, and reason's power is to allow us to comprehend the world. We 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. Lastly, in some sense, one would need to grasp free will, volition, at the very least as the power to direct one's own life and be in control of oneself. This notion has a huge overlap with being rational, with using reason, because to a regular person being “in control” of his life means being able to carry out whatever rational thinking he has engaged in. (For instance, cutting off your own leg is within your volition, but your subconscious and conscious mind won't even entertain the idea unless an emergency situation called for it, such that you would be far worse off or dead if you didn't amputate it. Examples like this also lead to the induction that “the faculty of reason is the faculty of volition,” thus connecting rational, logical deliberation and decision-making with voluntary actions as a whole class, but this won't be pursued, either.)

Next comes “man”: We know that man is an animal, a living thing with consciousness and locomotion. Both are observable facts: we can observe the motions of ourselves and others in our perceptual field, and we can observe our own consciousness directly. (We infer the existence of consciousness in others, since we can't be in their heads.) We know all kinds of biological facts about man and how similar he is to the other animals. But we also know about crucial differences. We drive cars, keep busy on the internet, read books, develop machines, and do countless other things that animals never do. And even the things that other animals do by their nature, like living underwater and flying, are possible to us by making and using inventions, like scuba gear, submarines, (de)pressurization tanks, and aircrafts. What explains the difference, more than any other factor? The fact that man has the power of reason. 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. So before reaching the induction that “all humans have reason as their basic tool of survival,” one must grasp that “all humans are rational; they possess reason by their nature.”

Lastly, “basic means of survival”: All living things can go out of existence—we know this from observations of various living things dying in all sorts of ways, and generalizing to all living things in all places and all times. To prevent death, living things need to act so as to sustain and maintain their lives across time: they need a way to survive. Plants need to utilize soil, water, and sunlight; animals need speed, keen awareness, and their claws, fangs, and hunting ability. The use of these abilities do achieve the end of sustaining life—if a lion successfully hunts a gazelle, then it was his means of survival. If a plant turns its leaves up towards the Sun and uses photosynthesis to create energy to live, then it was its means of survival. If a worm breaks down the material of corpses, then that is its means of survival. All of these actions result in the furtherance of the organism's life—all of them are means of survival to the relevant organisms. So, the next question is: what constitutes a “basic” means of survival? It would have to be an ability that gives rise to all the different varieties of ways that living things carry out the actions needed for their survival. Based on everything I know about plants, I would say that assimilation is their basic means of survival—simply taking root and taking in whatever they can use from the environment. And I would say that an animal's basic means of survival is consciousness, an awareness directed at its environment; even its other distinguishing characteristic, self-initiated motion in order to change location (i.e. locomotion), is only made meaningful by an awareness of locations, by their possession of consciousness. In other words, foraging for food, hunting, scaring off other predators, hiding, finding a mate, finding a safe place to sleep, protecting one's territory, leading a pack or group of similar animals, and a host of other actions would be impossible without an ability to be aware of the external world. So to know for certain that “reason is man's basic means of survival,” it would strengthen one's induction to generalize that “all living things have a basic means of survival.”

[Next post in the series: "My Basic Proof that 'Reason is Man's Basic Means of Survival'"]

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