How do we know what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong? What is our means of knowledge?
Our answers to these questions are the most consequential of all. They underlie and affect everything we think, say, and do. They determine the ideas we accept and reject, the plans we make, the actions we take, what we support, and whom we enable. They determine the course of our lives and the course of our culture, for better or worse.
Is knowledge a product of reason, observation, and logic? Is it a product of religious faith or social consensus? Is it acquired through a mixture of these—or perhaps some other means?
Toward answering these questions, we will look first at reason, its key components, and how they work. Then we will consider two forms of mysticism (i.e., claims to a means of knowledge other than reason) along with arguments in support of each: (1) the claim that religious faith is a means of knowledge, and (2) the claim that social consensus is a means of knowledge.
Reason and How It Works
Reason, as the philosopher Ayn Rand observed, is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.1 It operates by means of perceptual observation, conceptual integration, and logic.
In using reason, we perceive things, such as rocks, roses, people, and birds—and we observe their qualities and actions, such as hardness, redness, speaking, and flying. We mentally integrate our observations into conceptual abstractions, such as “rock,” “bird,” “speak,” and “fly”—and we integrate our concepts into increasingly abstract concepts, such as “animal,” “life,” “inanimate,” and “mortal.”
We further integrate our concepts into propositions and generalizations, such as “roses can be red,” “rocks are inanimate,” and “animals are mortal”—and into principles, such as “living things must take certain actions in order to remain alive” and “people must acquire knowledge in order to live.”
By enabling us to mentally integrate our perceptions into abstractions (concepts, generalizations, etc.), reason enables us to acquire, retain, and use a vast network of observation-based conceptual knowledge—from the principles of hunting to those of biology, to those of physics, engineering, art, and psychology.
Of course, human beings are fallible; we can err in our thinking. So, in order to correct any misconceptions or errors we might make, we must check our ideas for correspondence to reality. Our touchstones for this are the basic laws of nature: the laws of identity and causality. . . .
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1. Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 22.
2. See Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), 151; and H. W. B. Joseph, Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916), 408.
3. See Rand, For the New Intellectual, 126.
4. See Aristotle, “Metaphysics,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 736–37.
5. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), 35.
6. Hebrews 11:1.
7. Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man, A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), 117; see also Saint Augustine, “Tractate 27 on the Gospel of John,” Chapter 6: 60–72; and Saint Anselm, Proslogium, Chapter 1.
8. The Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile, 2001), 337, verse 158, note 983.
9. Abraham Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), 87, 167; Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 71.
10. Heschel, Between God and Man, 71, 140. Heschel in part quotes from Deuteronomy 26:17–18.
11. Genesis, 22:2.
12. Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, 87, 167–68.
13. Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 308.
14. The foundational principles of reason—the laws of identity, causality, and non-contradiction—need not and cannot be proven, as they are the starting points of all proof. Indeed, they are stronger than proven, in that (a) all proofs derive from and depend on them, and (b) any attempt to deny them actually reaffirms them. For more on this point, see my essay, “Ben Shapiro Denies and Affirms the Law of Identity” (TOS, Summer 2017).
15. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 32–33.
16. René Descartes, Meditations, “Dedicatory Letter to Sorbonne,” in Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, 3–4.
17. Peter Bayle, Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, 3rd ed., iv. 2688a, s.v. Takiddin, quoted in Arnold Toynbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 157.
18. Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, 171.
19. Quoted in Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, 305–7.
20. See Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman (New York: Dutton, 1997), 416.
21. Richard Rorty, “The Next Left,” interview by Scott Stossel, Atlantic Unbound, April 23, 1998.
22. Rand, For the New Intellectual, 78.
23. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 41. Whether Harris holds that knowledge is a product of “intersubjective consensus,” I don’t know. But he is clear on this first point, “No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all.” He also claims that there is no such thing as the “self,” that the “self” is an illusion, and it is unclear how knowledge could be a product of the individual’s mind if there is no individual self. But this is a conundrum for another day.
24. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s, 1965), 82–85.
25. Rand, For the New Intellectual, 125.
26. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), 40.
27. Rand, For the New Intellectual, 32. For more on Rand’s refutation of Kant’s attack on reason, see the full essay, “For the New Intellectual” in that same book; see also Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; and Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Penguin, 1984).
28. Stanley Fish, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 279–80
29. Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 29.
30. Richard Rorty, “From Logic to Language to Play,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 59 (1986): 747–53.
31. “Pragmatism, Then and Now, Sun Yong Interviews Susan Haack,” 2010, http://www.pragmatismtoday.eu/winter2010/Haack_Interview.pdf.
32. See Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 22, footnote.
33. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 373, 379.
34. Rorty, Achieving our Country, 35; see also Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23, footnote.
35. John Dewey, “The Ethics of Democracy,” in The Early Works of John Dewey, Volume 1, 1882–1898: Early Essays and Leibniz’s New Essays, 1882–1888, edited by Jo Ann Boydston and George E. Axetell (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 232.
36. John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt, 1938), 345, footnote.
37. Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 10.
38. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 173.
39. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), xlii.
40. Rorty is loath to acknowledge this. See Mirror, 373; Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 23.
41. From Musolini’s Diuturna, translated and quoted in Helmut Kuhn, Freedom Forgotten and Remembered (1943: University of North Carolina Press), 18.
42. Benito Mussolini, What is Fascism, an authorized translation by Jane Soames (Hogarth Press, 1932), 20–21, 24–25.
43. See “Italy’s Bloody Secret: Italian Atrocities in World War Two”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/jun/25/artsandhumanities.highereducation; see also “Italian War Crimes,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_war_crimes.
44. A. J. Barker, The Civilising Mission: The Italo-Ethiopian War 1935–6 (London: Cassell, 1968), 292–93; see also “Italy's Bloody Secret,” The Guardian; and “Italian War Crimes,” Wikipedia.
45. See “Italy’s Bloody Secret,” The Guardian.; and “Italian War Crimes,” Wikipedia.
46. Melvin Rader, No Compromise: The Conflict Between Two Worlds (London: Victor Gollancz, 1939), 107 (emphasis in original).
47. Rader, No Compromise, 107.
48. Rader, No Compromise, 42.
49. Rader, No Compromise, 42.
50. Hermann Goering, “Nine Commandments for the Workers’ Struggle,” Berlin, Germany, May 1934, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD. Online at Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Women in the Third Reich,” https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005205&MediaId=1724.
51. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, chap. 2, Proletarians and Communists (1847).
52. See Stéphane Courtois, Andrzej Paczkowski, Nicolas Werth, et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
53. See Rand, “Faith and Force,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, 62–63.