Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Induction of "Reason is Man's Only Means of Gaining Knowledge"

[Previous Post in this series: "Induction of 'The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False'" ]

In this essay, we’ll cover the inductions needed to reach the Objectivist principle that “reason is man’s only means of gaining knowledge.”

Here’s the outline of the essay, consisting of three inductions, and a formal, deductive conclusion:

(1) Reason is a means of gaining knowledge.

(2) Non-rational processes to knowledge reduce to feelings or emotions.

(3) Emotions are products of ideas.

(4) Reason is the only means of gaining knowledge.

Reason is a Means of Gaining Knowledge

“Knowledge” is a well-known concept, known to many cultures, and for many centuries. One dictionary defines it as “the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” Most people take it to mean some familiarity or acquaintance with certain facts and information in any field that one can learn about. “Knowledge” ranges from daily facts about life that most people take for granted (like washing and drying one’s clothes), to the most complicated, extraordinary theories of science and their applications to technology and human life. One of the most common things known about knowledge is that it is constitutive of power, or as Francis Bacon is claimed to have made the point: “knowledge is power”; the more you know, the more things that you can do, like archery, skiing, and becoming a pro basketball champion.

(Bacon had a more complicated meaning behind that phrase, but I won’t explore that thought here. If you would like to know more about his view of knowledge, see my essays: “Bacon's Theory of Induction as Presented in his Novum Organum,” parts 1 and 2.)

Given all of this, what is a process by which we gain knowledge? This is one of the essential questions posed by the science of Epistemology, and we’ve covered a great deal of the answer to that question in the previous inductions we’ve gone through. In the induction that “reason is man’s means of survival,” we saw that reason is a mental power that allows us to notice cause-and-effect relationships, plan long-range, abstract, draw inferences, generalize, and make judgments. We learned from the essay on inducing Aristotle’s understanding of “objectivity” that reason is the faculty that operates by concepts, ideas; that ideas come from perceptual observations by means of abstraction and generalization; that logic is a method for proving one’s ideas by checking them against laws applying to all thoughts, and reducing them to perceptual observations while checking for contradictions. And we learned from the essay on Rand’s view of “objectivity” that knowledge involves integrating all of its elements and it involves understanding a series of increasingly complex, high-level concepts; that the process of measurement-omission explains the nature of abstraction; that consciousness has an identity, it has specific characteristics; and proving ideas requires not just Aristotle’s theory of logic, but Rand’s additions as well, that every concept in an argument has to be validated, that the conclusion has to be related to the evidence of the senses, and that the conclusion must be integrated with everything else that one knows.

So we have a wealth of information that gives us a way to know the induction that “reason is a means of gaining knowledge.” We know that reason starts with evidence, information of the senses, observations, etc. We know that the form or manifestation of reason is a concept, which is a cognitive unit that integrates endless amounts of perceptual information which, in turn, expands our consciousness beyond the perceptual level. And we know that the method that reason uses to check if its concepts truly correspond to reality (are knowledge, and not some fantasy) is the science of logic, the goal of which is non-contradictory identifications and conclusions.

Non-rational Processes to Knowledge Reduce to Feelings or Emotions

This is an induction that was known long before Objectivism in some form or another, and I reached it between the ages of 12 and 14, around the time that I became an atheist in all but name, and became more interested in science and critical thinking.

In our modern civilization, there are many alleged approaches to knowledge: faith, revelation, intuition, instinct, ESP, and more. Once you know some of the rudiments of the faculty of reason, such as that it uses the senses, evidence, ideas, and some of its operations, like thinking with logic and reaching definite conclusions by integrating it with what you already know, you can begin to contrast that with the above-mentioned processes.

Faith: the sheer belief that something is true or real. Many religious groups profess that faith is their means to knowledge, but they have no explanation for why the other groups have different, even contradictory, faiths. (Historically, each faith has simply claimed that the other faiths have misinterpreted, or altered the “true faith.”) They also can’t coherently explain how it is that just by having “faith” in their God (or other deity or dimension), just by taking Him at His Word, they receive some gift of knowledge. The mechanism by which faith bestows knowledge has remained inexplicable for centuries, and rational people have defined faith accordingly as believing in something without (or in contradiction to) evidence. No evidence; no need to investigate facts; no context; no need for concepts; and no method to correct or check your conclusions. Just have faith, and knowledge is yours.

Revelation: the communication of knowledge to a person by a supernatural agent. The means by which a deity or its servant (like an angel) discloses information to a person has been explained just as well as faith has been—which is to say, not very well at all. Revealed knowledge is somehow higher and better than reasoned knowledge, but how this can be has never been pointed out. Knowledge gained by reason takes mental effort, study, bringing things to your context of knowledge; revelation is dropping effort, merely meditating, dropping your context, and supposedly letting the deity’s words reach your spirit. Just open your soul, and knowledge will be disclosed to you effortlessly.

Intuition: the capacity to immediately know something without observation or reason. This is a well-known term in our age, and it normally means one of two things. It either means our rapid-fast subconscious decisions and conclusions, due to our prior knowledge and the automatization of that knowledge, or some indefinable process that allows us to instantly know something that we shouldn’t, in fact, know. Like faith and revelation, no one can explain how they reached their intuitions about anything, not even when the intuitions of other people disagree—there’s no standard on which one could decide the legitimacy of one intuition over the other. Rational knowledge is knowledge gained step by step, taking a certain length of time, and definite cognitive steps, not a sudden flash of insight. (Though such an insight could be the legitimate result of subconscious processing of knowledge one already has.) In reality, there’s no such “intuitive” faculty, and no means to explain or justify the “just knowing” quality of anyone’s intuitions. This is another case where knowledge is mysteriously granted, but the process or mechanism that allows for this can’t be explained.

Extra-sensory Perception: “Perception that involves awareness of information about something (such as a person or event) not gained through the senses and not deducible from previous experience.”

ESP comes in three main forms: telepathy, knowing someone else’s thoughts without sensory communication; clairvoyance, knowing an object or event without the use of the senses; and precognition, the ability to know another’s thoughts or about events before they have occurred. As you could imagine, no one can really explain these processes or how they can qualify as knowledge. What happens when an alleged person with ESP fails in predicting an event, or in explaining the thinking of another person whom he hasn’t interacted with, or is revealed to have been committing fraud or trickery? It’s swept under the rug, and is explained away by the person’s psychic abilities being “inhibited” by something. As we know, reason forms its concepts and knowledge from the evidence of the senses, and proposes causes of future events based on what the person knows about the past and present. ESP asserts some unnatural, mystical faculty that bypasses, and is superior to, rational knowledge, and basically claims that all knowledge is essentially in your head already, without effort; find a way to raise your ESP level, and you can unlock the secrets of the universe and of men’s minds.

Instinct: “An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli.”

Instincts are supposed to be automatic, unlearned types of knowledge and action that all members of a species perform due to some signal given by the living thing’s environment. By itself, calling something an “instinct” explains nothing, and doesn’t progress your knowledge in how a given pattern of behavior happens, or why. Advocates of instinct theory believe that people have all kinds of innate knowledge, stored in the brain and nervous system; as Nathaniel Branden mentioned in an article about instincts (while he was still an Objectivist), however, alleged instinctual behavior are usually (1) not universal to the species but depend on particular beliefs or attitudes, (2) simple reflexes, and/or (3) a product of learned behavior. Essentially, instincts are no different from faith, revelation, and the rest: an inexplicable, effortless means of knowledge that bypasses the path to knowledge through reason.

What are all these claims about faith and revelation and ESP, when really analyzed? From introspecting, and asking people about issues like these for years, I came to an inductive conclusion that Objectivism adopts as well, and that many secular people endorse: mystical, non-rational processes of gaining knowledge amount to: feelings.

I used to ask people about why they believed in God, and they told me that they have “faith,” that they feel that He exists. Why do they have faith? No real answer: they just feel it. Why do they believe that some knowledge they have is revealed to them? Because they feel that it is. Why does someone believe in ESP? Because one day they felt like something bad was going to happen, a bad premonition, and it happened, so they were convinced that they had predictive, psychic powers.

A well-known group who easily understood this induction was the Nazis. Hitler once said, “[t]rust your instincts, your feelings, or whatever you like to call them,” and the Nazis were allowed to publicly advocate any nonrational source of knowledge, whether it be intuition, faith, revelation, trances, magic, or even astrology. What wasn’t permitted to them was reasoning, thinking, Aristotelian logic. They could only uphold their feelings, or more precisely, only the feelings of Hitler, the Führer. As Hermann Goering (who was, at his peak, second-in-command only to Hitler) makes the point, “I tell you, if the Führer wishes it then two times two are five.” The “truth” is then whatever Hitler’s “Aryan instincts” or “Aryan logic” or feelings told him was the truth, and the Nazis dutifully obeyed. (For more about this, consult Leonard Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels.)

Analyze the supporters of non-rational, non-sensory processes to knowledge, and you’ll discover that their allegiances to various doctrines are backed by nothing but their hopes, dreams, wishes, and fears—what they feel is right or wrong, good or bad.

Emotions are Products of Ideas

This is a somewhat difficult induction to reach, because it involves analyzing feelings and emotions, and most people simply live and act by their emotions, taking them uncritically as the given. Where would we begin?

I think that the best place to start is comparing and contrasting emotions with sensations, since our everyday lives consist mostly of experiencing one or the other.

As far as comparing them, the easiest thing to notice about sensations and emotions is that they’re both bodily reactions to something. Someone hits you with a rock, and you feel the sensation of pain, because your body, brain, and nervous system are reacting to the physical stimulus. After being hit, you initially experience the emotion of bewilderment: you tense up, raise an eyebrow, look rapidly around your environment trying to figure out what just happened. When you determine that someone hit you with that rock lying nearby, your emotion turns to anger, and your eyes grow menacing and stare in the attacker’s direction, you clench your fits, and grind your teeth.

Let’s presuppose that we know enough science to understand sensations and their causes. What then caused the emotions in the above-mentioned case? You were bewildered at first because you didn’t know what happened you: you knew that you were hit with something, but what it was, how it reached you, and why it hit you are things that you’re confused about and don’t know yet. When you see a person and a rock nearby, you infer that he threw a rock, thus answering all your perplexities, and now you think that what he wronged you in some way. In both emotions, you saw or experienced something, reached definite conclusions in regard to what you perceived or experienced, and evaluated your conclusions and the result of all of this was the emotion being expressed.

Sensations occur through purely physical means, but emotions do not. Something else is involved in emotions, but what is it?

Consider a basketball game: why do the fans of the home team show enthusiasm and cheerfulness for their team, but contempt and aversion towards the opposing team? Why do you feel happy in the presence of your friends, but sad or angry in the presence of those you detest? Why would a woman feel elation at the man of her dreams asking her to marry him, but utter revulsion at even the thought of some man asking her whom she hated with a passion?

What is missing here are the intellectual causes of emotions and feelings.

1. Let’s say that your home team wins a football game, and you’re happy, ecstatic even. Why would you be happy? Because the team is one of your values, or perhaps you have a favorite player or set of players whom you value, or perhaps you value the coach. You want them to succeed, to go on and win the championship, to keep building a better and better team for the future, etc.

2. You don’t feel the same way around your friends as you do when you’re around your enemies, people whom you hate. With your friends, you feel relieved, comfortable, and a sense of excitement; with your enemies, you feel apprehensive, tense, not like yourself. Why this is the case is that your friends respect you as a person, and have or share the same values that you do in some respects, so you feel like your values can be achieved with them, whether now or in the future. But your enemies oppose or are indifferent to your values, and are antagonistic towards you as a person, so you feel that they will prevent you from accomplishing your values, or will outright destroy them, like the bully who takes your money for lunch (the value).

3. Why experience elation at the ideal man asking you to marry him, and the deepest revulsion and disgust at the most anti-ideal man doing the same thing? By feeling happy about the ideal man, you’re responding to your highest values, what you think is right and great about the whole situation. The exact opposite is happening in the case of the man you passionately hate. He’s the opposite of you, and can’t even respond to you because you both are in two different worlds, value-wise, and so his proposal is ludicrous and you think of it as a sick joke. It isn’t just whether they are attractive, or what physical things they do, or even your own physical body, but what you think about them, and your evaluation of your thinking.

What inductions can we gleam from examples like this? One of them is an induction we covered in the essays on “the initiation of physical force” and “the objectivity of values”: values are generated in part by the thinking we’ve done, the ideas we have, and the conclusions we’ve reached. Value-judgments are conclusions reached by a process of reason, by thinking, inference.

Another induction, one that is necessary to complete the induction “emotions are products of ideas,” is the principle that (in Rand’s words) “[e]motions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious.”

That last induction is perhaps the most difficult of all to understand (as far as the principles I’m covering in this essay), because most people learn a lot about their own emotions, and the concepts for emotions (“happy,” “sad,” “relieved,” etc.), before they ever learn about the “subconscious,” not to mention the connection between the subconscious and the emotional faculty. Nevertheless, in order to know this, a person would have to seriously analyze their own thoughts and emotions, and note the connection, the causal chain.

First, the person has to recognize things, form some ideas about those things, and then internalize that thinking, which means to have it processed by their subconscious. As time goes on, the person has to evaluate these things in one way or another; he needs value judgments (e.g. food is good), and he needs these to be internalized, as well. Once the subconscious has stored and organized these ideas and value-judgments, when a concrete arises that you already have ideas and values pertaining to, you’ll instantly respond in an emotional way to that concrete, and whether the emotion expressed is positive or not depends on your previous thinking and your standard for evaluation, on what you think furthers or detracts from your values.

Emotions are products of your ideas because they are the result of your subconscious processing of your previously conscious thoughts and value-judgments. If you had no values, you would be completely indifferent to everything, and the same would result if you had no ideas about anything, or if your subconscious had no information within it.

Reason is the Only Means of Gaining Knowledge

The first induction was that reason is a means of gaining knowledge, that the process involves combining perceptions into conceptions through the process of abstraction, and reaching conceptual conclusions by the method of logic.

The second induction was that non-rational processes to knowledge are really just the assertions of the person’s feelings.

The third induction clarified that feelings or emotions actually originate from one’s ideas, one’s concepts and conclusions; they are a reaction or response to one’s prior thinking and value-judgments.

The next step is to put everything together.

Reason is a faculty of awareness. The process by which it is aware of reality is the organization of perceptual observations. Reason works with the senses, and puts the perceptual information together to form concepts. And reason works by choice: reason is the faculty that can direct itself, check its own conclusions, and maintain its connection to reality using the method of logic.

There is no faculty that corresponds to the processes of intuition, instinct, ESP, revelations, or faith. They all seemingly transcend or supersede reason, but there are no known elements to these processes: no senses, no concepts, no ideas, no process of reaching conclusions, no independent means to check if they lead to true conclusions or not. Since there’s no identifiable process to refer to for these candidates of gaining knowledge, we concluded that they are simply the feelings and emotions of the advocates of intuition, ESP, etc.

The point we’ve reached is that the only real candidates for the generation of knowledge are either reason or emotion. The question then becomes, “can emotions be a means of gaining knowledge?” Given that reason is certainly a means of gaining knowledge, is it possible that emotions can supplement reason or even substitute for it?

Unlike reason, emotions are not a faculty of awareness, but of reaction or response to one’s perceptions (or imaginations). Emotions have no power of volition or choice; they has no independent means to access reality, unlike reason; an emotion has no process for guiding its course, and no ability to keep track of its relationship to reality.

By themselves, emotions only tell you that something makes you feel something. Even this isn’t knowledge without a process of reason, specifically introspection: a painstaking process of using one’s concepts to identify each and every emotion you have, to figure out what brought the feeling up or aroused it, and whether or not it’s an appropriate response to the facts of a situation.

Emotions have no play in the course of logic, or establishing the evidence for a conclusion. A man may hate someone, but that is no logical proof that he has done any wrongdoing, and it would be inappropriate to cite his emotions as knowledge of wrongful acts. The emotion simply means that the man reached a certain idea in the past, and now it’s in his subconscious: it’s an open issue whether that idea is rationally proved or not, and the only way to know is to use one’s reasoning, not one’s emotions.

All of these considerations lead to a formal, deductive principle, which Rand states as: “emotions are not tools of cognition.” What this means is that emotions are not a means of gaining knowledge, and that following emotions is not the means to knowledge. It can neither supplement reason nor substitute for its role in the acquisition of knowledge.

That deduction leads to one final, deductive conclusion: reason is man’s only means of gaining knowledge. All other purported processes for gaining knowledge reduce to the person’s emotional responses, and emotions are inexplicable without the process of reason—this means that you need reason to acquire knowledge even about emotions. Knowledge is gained by one’s tools of cognition, and one’s tools of cognition are: one’s concepts.

If reason is the only means of gaining knowledge, then we can now modify the definition I initially gave. Knowledge is “the identification of a fact of reality, reached by perceptual observation, or a process of reason based on perceptual observation.” The “process of reason” could be abstraction in the case of forming concepts, or it could be the processes of induction and deduction for forming conclusions.


  1. You haven't mentioned imitation. Copying or imitating others is probably the most used way of getting information about the world. Especially by infants and young children. Even adults imitate what they deem to be successful behaviors, actions, ideas, etc. People don't really want to rediscover the wheel every time they want to know how to do things so they copy someone else who has been successful at doing those things. It's learning by imitating authority figures. Very common and, of course, very unreliable if one imitates the wrong people. So how does this fit into your ideas?

  2. Well, I agree that imitation is a widely-used method of learning something or how to perform some action.

    I think that imitation could be an element of gaining knowledge, but not a means; sometimes, it would be part of the means, and sometimes, not.

    For example, a plain plagiarizer is not using imitation as a method to learn while blindly copying down someone else's work. He isn't really even aware of what he's copying down at the level of reasoning, abstract thought, critical analysis: he's writing or typing what he sees. So imitation in that case doesn't lead to knowledge.

    Many good examples of imitation leading to knowledge exist, though. Practically all training in every respect is imitation, carrying out tasks that many others have accomplished or originated well before you came along. Students imitate masters, and so on. So, through going through the copied actions, one gains a practical or theoretical understanding of the principles and/or elements involved, and that is learning.

    I think that reasoning makes all the difference, though.

    So, I don't think it's a means because they are different ways to go about imitation, and imitation isn't always part of the process of gaining knowledge. Sometimes, we both agree, the wheel is invented, and that is knowledge, as well.

  3. This was a lovely article and helped my son understand "reasoning to gain knowledge" better as he has to write an article on this topic. Thank you.

  4. Kala, you are very much welcome! And I hope your son does well on his assignment.

    What did he end up writing about concerning "reason" and/or "knowledge"?