Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Second Proof that "Reason is Man's Means of Survival"

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

A final “basic proof” of the principle that reason is man's basic means of survival.

Now that I've given a reduction of the principle, an attempt at proving it, observed literally weeks of examples, and listened to Dr. Peikoff's presentation of his induction, I'm more than ready to explain this principle.

The purpose of this essay is merely to show that reason is crucial and incredibly important to human survival. It's not to fully demonstrate why it is the “basic” means; this would involve contrasting it other means of survival in order to show why they are derivative.

An induction is a generalization that makes a causal connection, and this connection can be implicit or explicit. The form that this induction takes is “Every M is R (for whatever causal reason)”: every man's basic means of survival, for some causal reason, is reason. The induction itself can be broken up into three stages, which need to be validated in order to reach the proof.

(1): Certain things are required for survival. (2): Certain actions are necessary to gain these things (needed for survival). (3): Therefore, a certain thought process is required in order to take these actions.

In order to reach (1), it has to be assumed that there is such a thing as life and death, and observation confirms this for all living things. And one would also have to know that living things can face hardship and difficulties while alive, and overcome them, like when prey outruns and exhausts the predators chasing it. That's the basic knowledge needed for the idea of “survival,” that living things face this problem of survival. Assuming this then, all we need to know for (1) is that there are certain objects, goods, things that are required for survival, without which the relevant living thing will die. Immediately, three classes of things come to mind: food (including water), clothing, and shelter. These are non-controversial examples, and no knowledge of Objectivism is needed to know them: in fact, these three are the widely recognized basic human needs. These three (at the minimum) allow us to survive by giving us the physical fuel needed to continue living, and protect us from the environment, especially temperature changes and other animals.

While one is producing an endless list of foods, pieces of clothing, and shelters, and thinks of them when one considers “things required for survival,” a striking observation should be made and noted: our modern technological age. We have transportation-tools that make us much faster in traveling, such as bicycles, buses and cars, and medicinal-tools to aid us in combating and curing diseases, and healing our injuries. The technology of parachutes allow us to survive falls from heights that would otherwise be fatal, and that of airplanes and spaceships allow us to counteract the force of Earth's gravity with the force of lift. All of these have some relation to the basic needs, such as curing a patient's crippling disease in order for the patient to get back to living his life, which in part means consuming food under his own power. Here, we begin to connect basic needs with certain tools or things needed to acquire those needs. We use weapons to hunt animals for food; we create a water system with ducts, valves, and pumps to process and filter water so that's suitable for drinking; we use hammers, nails, precision-cut pieces of wood, and construction machines to build a house which shelters us from the environment; we use pins, needles, threads, and pieces of cloths produced from animal furs to create clothing to keep us warm or cool. Tools are indispensable to human survival, we come to realize. That's all we need for (1), the first induction that “certain things are required for survival.”

The next question, which (2) answers, is: how do we get (1), the very things we need to survive? Something or some process is involved, in order to reach these things required for survival. Here we know that these things are important, but we don't know where these things come from or what role reason plays, if any. What do we need to do in order to move forward?

This is when we explicitly use an essential element needed in any valid induction: the method of contrast, the method of discovering an important difference, and observing where things agree (have the same attributes/characteristics). (In theories of induction like that of John Stuart Mill, these are known as the method of agreement and the method of difference.) We need to know if there's some field or area where the things we're talking about do not apply. In other words: what is present when this technology is present and absent when this technology is absent? We have a large stock of physical tools and goods, and we know that humans are present when this technology is present and absent when it is absent, so the question is: is there another species that doesn't have technology—that isn't surrounded by boats, hammers, buildings, hospitals, factories, etc.? The contrast that highlights where the differences lie is between us and the other animals, who don't possess technology.

Harry Binswanger's “genus” method would certainly help here: about what regarding people and animals are we making a contrast? We've reached the point where we can discuss different species with different means of survival—the question is where, which “genus” proposition, should we start with? We could start with “every living thing has a means of survival” or “every conscious being has a means of survival.” Plants use chemical assimilation to survive; animals use consciousness and motion. And by contrast, other animals are guided by their senses, whereas we are guided by our thinking. And this last becomes our point of reference, of the contrast between other conscious beings and ourselves. There's something distinctive about our mode of consciousness and about our sole possession of technology, of artificial or “man-made” objects. There is a connection between our consciousness and technology that explains why animals, who possess a different kind of consciousness, cannot understand or create what we can. They simply take and use what's around them, whether from nature or from the results of human action (like a cat playing with a ball of yarn, something that we made). We, on the other hand, can't just take from nature because the things needed for our survival are not just here, like lamps, syringes, and apple juice.

So, what do we do to get these things needed for survival, in contrast to the animals? If we want food in the form of meat, we have to hunt living animals. We create tools like bows and arrows, spears, traps, and guns to capture, harm, and kill animals. And we use other tools to prepare them for our consumption, like fire, pots, pans, and seasonings we've mixed together. So the fields of weaponry and cooking comprise the kinds of actions we need to get our basic needs. To get food in the form of vegetables and fruits, we use tools to create the conditions required to grow the plants. The right seeds, a shovel to dig up the earth and bury the seed, a hoe, a till, an irrigation system, fertilizer, pesticides designed to successfully grow crops and to allow trees to bear fruit. Thus, the field of agriculture is necessary for survival, as well. To get clothing, we have to capture or breed animals and skin them, tan the furs, or grow crops and harvest their produce, like cotton, and process the material, such as with the sewing, pressing, and dyeing methods, trimming the cloth to fit particular sizes of people, and so on; this means that tailoring is a more technical field involving hunting and agriculture that we nonetheless require. And if we want shelters or homes, we need to build tools to cut down trees into precise pieces of wood, tools to mix sand, gravel and limestone into cement, and water to turn that into concrete, bulldozers, cranes and other caterpillar-track tractors to push material, drill holes, position the material that will become the shelter, and all of this happening according to the design plans of a lead engineer or architect; therefore, the fields of civil engineering and architecture are also required to acquire our basic needs.

So we begin with what the animals begin with, the raw materials of nature, but we combine and separate and reposition them in order to create new things that we require for our survival. There's a process of cause-and-effect occurring here, and at this stage we now know that a process of production is involved whenever we do the kinds of things needed to acquire the things needed for survival. Production is any process of turning raw natural materials into some sort of artificial object, and it integrates all the human objects we are now considering. Therefore, production is our answer to the question: how do we get these things? This is the end of stage 2, and while we haven't finished the induction, we are getting close: we've proved that certain things are needed for survival, including tools, and we've just proved that the field of production is required for us to make those essential things, or to produce tools necessary for their acquisition (or tools to make other tools, and so forth).

The third, and final, question is: what allows us to engage in production, what enables us to create tools and provide for our needs? We again turn to the method of contrast: what is present when a process of production is present, and absent when production is absent? A mental process of thought is always involved in any act of production; in other words, reason is the root of production. And the only way to reach this idea is by observation and inferences made thereby.

Let's take the example of a major productive action in human history: the production of fire. To artificially produce fire, rather than use it only when it's naturally produced (like from a lightning strike), someone had to understand the importance of friction, that friction is the cause, and fire is the effect, such as quickly rotating a stick on a wooden base and blowing on the resulting charcoal. And someone would have had to grasp that all sorts of woods can produce fire when used properly, and that the materials for a fire should be kept away from excessive winds, or things that could smother it like dirt, rocks, or water. This means that a certain amount of generalizing and abstraction was needed to produce fire: every fire, every body of water, every piece of wood, every trail of wind, and every occurrence of friction may be different, but we can strip away or abstract out the differences and discover the key similarities which unite them. This is how we can produce fire not just by accident, but practically at will, in a variety of conditions and environments. So even very primitive productive achievements like fire require the faculty of reason. And the same kinds of mental activity are needed to cook, to mix and administer medicine, cure a disease, plot out a course and reach a destination with artificial transportation, and all other productive courses of action that we engage in. Reason, we learn from these sort of thoughts (or already know), is the mental power that allows our mind to understand cause-and-effect relationships, form generalizations and abstractions, draw inferences, and make judgments.

Consider that it's our tool of reason that allows us to plan long-range. Another difference between us and the other animals is that they don't have this capacity (except in special cases, like bears preparing for hibernation, and even this is a form of non-productive activity). Reason, which makes us aware of cause-and-effect, also makes aware of a future that may come to pass, and allows us to connect our present to it: this allows us to carry out long-range actions with an ultimate goal or object in mind, an expectation. Cooks may take hours preparing their ingredients to be processed into tasty food; hunters may spend weeks preparing weapons and tracking their prey; construction workers, engineers, and architects may spend months or years planning and physically constructing a new building. Animals can't do any of these, because they act on their perceptions and respond to their environment, and often the benefits of productive activity aren't immediately perceived or understood. We use reason to predict the future, or consider future consequences, and guide our actions accordingly, and this ability has a lot of survival value: without it, production would be impossible, or a useless exercise at best.

Language is also an important result of reason. Not only do we think, but we create means to make our thoughts physically perceivable (whether by sight, hearing, or touch), both to improve and retain our own thinking and to communicate with others. To build even the simplest tool, like a pencil or a cup, we need a set of instructions to make it effectively, and for that we need to be able to read, and before that we would have needed someone to have been engaged in thought and wrote down the set of instructions we want to follow. It's language that makes it possible for us to carry out a vast range of productive activities, like a team of hunters communicating and thereby flanking their prey, a head chef teaching his less-experienced cooking students, and a group of construction workers and engineers coordinating in order to build a wastewater system.

Lastly, there's the most obvious field which demonstrates the relation between reason and survival: the field of science. It took centuries of scientific discoveries made by many scientists to produce the motor, the engine, the car, the airplane, the skyscraper, the T.V., and the internet. Science opened completely new paths to production that would have been impossible without it, such as modern air travel, and the machines used in mass production. Reason allows us to produce theories about the world, and create practical inventions to conform to these theories. Where would modern medicine be if the field hadn't accepted William Harvey's theory that the purpose of the heart is to pump and circulate blood? And without James Lind's initial proof that citrus fruits treat and cure the disease known as scurvy? Where would the modern practice of projectile warfare be without the theories of motion produced by Galileo Galilei? Once one begins to trace out the history of science leading to our technological age, the relation between reason and survival becomes impossible to honestly ignore. Upon a survey of all sorts of fields, one can reach the general conclusion that reason is a practical faculty; it isn't just the power to gain knowledge and satisfy our curiosity and wonder (as the philosophers of ancient Greece contended), but also to amply sustain and vastly improve our survival. This is how we reach the end of stage 3, the final induction. Reason is the faculty that makes production possible, which makes the things needed for our survival possible.

To summarize the argument: Induction #1: We require certain physical objects to survive (ex. Food, water, clothing, shelter). Induction #2: We perform acts of production to gain these objects (ex. transportation, weaponry, agriculture). Induction #3: We engage in various processes of reason unique to us that allow us to produce (ex. thinking, inferring, long-range planning, isolating a problem, grasping cause-and-effect, generalizing, abstracting).

The summation or combination of these generalizations is the induction we set out to prove: reason is man's means of survival. A valid induction must state or imply the cause of why something is the way it is or carries out the actions it does, so to state the relationship explicitly: reason is man's means of survival because production is the application of reason to the problem of survival. The proof for this being the cause is contained in reaching induction #3 above, but it's also contained in understanding any given act of production.

[Next post in the series: "Reduction of the Principle of Egoism"]


  1. Hi,

    I'm having some trouble with this induction.
    How do you arrive at the conclusion in stage 2 that production is absolutely necessary to gain values?

    You say for example: "To get clothing, we have to capture or breed animals and skin them, tan the furs [...]"

    How can that be true, when a man can get clothing by just taking what another man has produced? It's not nice, but it's possible. So the conclusion seems arbitrary.

    What would you say to this?

  2. Sorry for the late reply, I've had a lot of things to deal with lately.

    "What would you say to this?"

    I arrived at it as I explained in the essay: by reflecting on how all of these things that we depend on came into existence. Production is absolutely necessary to gain values, to gain these things we need to survive, because they will not exist without production. Without production, clothes will remain cotton on a plant or fur on an animal, etc. It takes physical and mental work to make these things into what we need, and so without the former, you won’t have the latter. That’s what I mean.

    Even if a person takes clothing from someone else, that doesn’t negate the fact that the piece of clothing had to be produced in order for it to be stolen. Further, my view is that you can’t actually steal values: stealing isn’t actually in a person’s interest, and so the results of thievery won’t actually be to their benefit. But that’s a whole separate issue, out of the scope of the present essay. Generally, production and trade are the activities that lead to values, whereas thievery leads to disvalues: hatred, distrust, conflict, imprisonment, revenge thievery, and even death.

    Similarly, you could have objected that people don’t need to produce fruit and vegetables—these grow naturally. My answer to this would be similar to my answer about stealing other’s productive works: I’m talking about a method of living, of survival, not a method for just getting through the next few moments or hours or days. Long-range, a life of stealing or waiting for nature to take care of you is ineffective at best, and suicidal at worst.

    If you think we can really steal values, then I’d love to discuss that with you when we both have more time.