The Inescapable Authority of Reason and the Senses

I may have failed the task of reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and recognizing the total irrefutability of every sentence of the Galt speech, but there is one sentence that hits the nail completely on the head. After defining an axiom, Galt makes this additional point: “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” He then illustrates this using Rand’s favored colonialist terminology and various specific axioms, including the two big ones: “let the witch doctor who does not choose to accept the validity of sensory perception, try to prove it without using the data he obtained by sensory perception—let the head-hunter who does not choose to accept the validity of logic, try to prove it without using logic.” (p. 1040, Penguin version) The latter sentence would be Rand’s answer to the challenge that one can’t use reason to validate reason itself. In fact, both points are merely two sides of the same coin, and taken together they present the key to the logically correct epistemological foundation. I will illustrate this using an example so obvious that I am almost certainly not the first person to use it.

A scientist decides to test the validity of human vision. He takes an eye to the laboratory and puts it under the scalpel. A midsagittal section gives him some clues but isn’t enough. He puts it under the microscope. This is more revealing, but still not sufficient. He notices the lens is a bit dirty and so gives it a bit of a clean. One more look and finally he finds what he’s looking for. “Hmmm”, he says, “the evidence appears conclusive that the human eye is completely incapable of accurately transmitting information from the outside world.”

The point of this thought experiment is not that we must treat the eye as some sort of sacred cow. We can, and have, established limitations in the reliability of human vision. The eye is a finite object, and its design far from perfect. However, although we can diminish the reliability of the eye, it is only possible to do so down to a certain point. Beyond this point, it undermines the bare minimum reliability necessary to establish this judgment in the first place, creating a fatal contradiction. The point is that sensory information holds an epistemological authority that cannot be escaped. It binds all of our knowledge to a sensory foundation that can never be replaced by a purely “objective” one. The authority of the human senses may be finite, but it is absolute nonetheless.

The point does not stop there. Suppose our mad scientist drew the opposite conclusion. Suppose he wound up saying “eureka! I have confirmed the validity of human vision.” This is merely a less obvious form of the same sort of fallacy. It involves a contradiction between the assumption that the eye is valid and that it can be validated, a verb which means changing it from the state of not being valid in the first place. The moment our scientist “validates” vision as a consequence of his investigation, he invalidates the vision he relied on during the investigation. This is the same outcome as when he declared the eye useless. Thus, his investigation of the validity of vision cannot confirm it, refute it, or even leave the question open. It can reach no logical conclusion because its premises are false. The one thing it can establish is consistency. Showing scientifically that the organ of vision is valid at least suggests that our science is not completely off the rails.

Having established this principal, we can now apply it to that other essential power of ours: our reasoning faculties. Just as it is logically impossible to validate our senses by empirical science, neither is it logically possible to validate our reason using ANY direct or indirect product of our reasoning, including any notion of God. If one converts to a religious fundamentalism claiming that reason can only be validated by belief in the divine, then one invalidates whatever reasoning led to the conversion in the first place, be it an argument for the existence of God, an investment against eternal hellfire, etc.. An important conclusion emerges from this: it is not logically permissible for religion to provide the ultimate foundation for one’s epistemology. Whatever epistemological role one may find for it, if one is so inclined, it is necessarily subordinate to reason.

It is important to realize that this is no mere pragmatist argument for reason, which would suggest we must use it in order to get by. The position reached here is stronger, that reason has us trapped in its domain with no possibility of escape. This is not pragmatism because pragmatism by its nature is voluntary. It assumes we somehow have a choice. Yet our reason is axiomatic in a way that does not give us a choice. It does not leave room for philosophical speculation or debate about the validity of reason, or even give us permission to go off looking for a more satisfying reason for believing in it. We are eternally bound to it. Nor is this argument a validation of reason, because that would contradict it. Reason cannot validate itself, but it can let us know that we’re stuck with it, not pragmatically, but rather inescapably.

This principle pertains necessarily to the individual, so another conclusion that follows is that one can’t, strictly speaking, rely on the notion of other observers. As reassuring as it is that my basic visual perceptions are consistent with those of my comrades (I’m not the only one seeing this right?), I cannot relinquish my reliance on them. Even if I accept that my perception is malfunctioning, that will be based on an understanding of hallucination that was itself learned through my senses. Even the other people telling me there’s no green cacodemon outside the window are themselves part of my own perception! This non-reliance on agreement by other parties is very important because in the case of reason I have no such luxury, and people are so bad at reasoning that a general belief in the conclusions of others is the recourse of an utter fool.

Speaking of hallucination brings us to one last point. How then does the inescapability of my reason and senses give me any certainty? How does it stave off the problem of my own possible insanity? The answer is simple: it doesn’t. That’s the downside I’m afraid, and that’s where I’m going to leave you. Sleep soundly.

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