Answering Questions about Empiricism as Foundational: Our Rational Nature

I wrote a piece recently entitled “Empiricism as Foundational” to which See Noevo, when prompted, finally actually said something of substance, and asked some questions and made some points. I would like to deal with them in this post.

He stated:

I’ll try a comment.
Perhaps my much younger 61 year old mind, which broke free from atheism about 28 years ago and became ever more Catholic starting about 20 years ago, can add something. There’s actually very much that could be written and has been written on these
subjects, but I’ll try to keep this short. Some points and questions to ponder:

Jonathan talks of “our rational nature”.
– But how does a non-rational process (i.e. evolution) produce a rational nature?
– How would the very first supposedly rational creature know it was rational?

Jonathan writes what may be the most revealing line here:
“The Empiricism thesis does not entail that we have empirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be
gained, if at all, by experience.”

– You see, Jonathan admits that he does not know that he can know anything at all.

Even if he won’t admit it, I think he knows only that he has faith that he can know. He has faith that reality exists outside of himself. He has faith that his senses are giving him a relatively reliable impression of that reality.
– But Jonathan’s faith differs from mine in that his faith rests on nothingness, or more specifically, on an inexplicably
originating and meaninglessly evolving cosmological and biological matter.

Jonathan states “The question that we really need to ask is, “How do I measure how good or useful logic is?””

Poor Jonathan. He doesn’t seem to realize that there is no such thing as “good” in his worldview. Only meaningless matters of what “tastes” he likes.

Jonathan ends with “It appears to me that empiricism lies at the heart of the consideration and evaluation of all

Jonathan hopefully realizes that empiricism by itself is useless without rationality. One needs both.

It’s kind of like how the Catholic Church says faith alone is no good and reason alone is no good. It says you
need both faith and reason.

If you’d like to read something more substantial than Jonathan’s ramblings, you could try this:…

Of course, it’s still dripping with contempt and condescension, but we’ll ignore that. I’ll deal in this post with just point 1).

Our Rational Nature

Jonathan talks of “our rational nature”.
– But how does a non-rational process (i.e. evolution) produce a rational nature?
– How would the very first supposedly rational creature know it was rational?

What See Noevo is referring to here (whether he knows it or not) is CS Lewis’ Argument from Reason. This is often used to argue against rationalism to say, “How can humans be rational because rationality can’t emerge from the non-rational”. Of course, the first thing to say here is, “Why not?” Any theory of emergence will argue that properties that are categorically different can emerge from other entities with different properties. Life emerges (albeit on a naturalistic thesis) from non-life. Patterns emerge from murmurations of starlings, consciousness from brain matter and so on.

Of course, this is just an inverse form of the Fallacy of Composition known as the Fallacy of Division. A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts. How can a computer compute when a single piece of plastic that makes it up, or the screen, or any individual part, can’t? These properties emerge when certain networks and pieces of matter are arranged in a prticular way.

I have argued before that evolution will favour the rational (and this fits PERFECTLY into my original piece here) because of the pragmatic implications. That is to say, if I reason that the swaying bush is a tiger, rather than that it has no causal basis, then I am more likely to survive. I reason with myself, using induction here, that the bush is a tiger, then whether it is or not, I will survive. Imagine a Caroll Diagram whereby there are four options:

  1. I hypothesise tiger, run away, it is tiger, SURVIVE
  2. I hypothesise tiger, run away, it isn’t tiger, SURVIVE
  3. I hypothesise nothing (using no rationality), stay put, it is tiger, DIE
  4. I hypothesise nothing (using no rationality), stay put, it isn’t tiger, SURVIVE

In other words, death comes to the person who does not use rationality. Therefore, using rationality will be selected in by evolution by natural selection.

You can apply this to all sorts of things, such as hypothesising about food, problem-solving and so on.

The final point on this is that it prompts the question about what rationality really is. A computer is rational and adheres strictly (much better than humans) to logic and rationality, if the word is described in logical terms. But a computer isn’t alive. It is made of inanimate pieces of natural matter.

I think this is a key point because adherents to the Argument from Reason often fail to properly define rationality, and often seem to conflate it with deliberation – thinking about rational ideas. But deliberating on a decision is actually just very inefficient (qua poor) rationality. If we were to be purely rational in our computations, then our conclusions would be instantaneous. This is why God, if he was to exist, wouldn’t think, wouldn’t deliberate. Perfect decisions and decision-making would be non-deliberative.

Rationality, for me anyway, is the application of logic and logical rules and this has pragmatic implications, as seen above. And good logic is logic from which usefulness can be derived. Otherwise, logic would be rubbish. If, for the sake of argument, logic and rationality produced uselessness or deleterious consequences, then no entity would favour it since they would end up not existing due to its negative consequences. Rationality is useful, and that is why we have evolved to use it.

His second part of point 1) it just a little bit odd. “How would the very first supposedly rational creature know it was rational?” Well, if we observe something, and then give that thing a label, then that’s how. Technically, we would need to evolve complex language and communication, as well as decent sensory organs. With that, we can start to understand the world. Logic is a language of description about the world that we use because we can and it’s useful. I posit that See thinks he’s being clever by offering one of these eyebrow-raising “thoughtful” questions, without realising that the question is a bit empty.

“How would the very first supposedly seeing creature know it was seeing?” You could replace the words there with any kind of idea, but what the question really is, is the Cartesian “How do we know anything?” Descartes answered this by saying we only know one thing to be indubitably true – that the thinking entity exists – cogito ergo sum. Other than that, it is all ranges of probability.

We know we are rational because we define rationality (R) as X, observe ourselves having X and say (using logic), “R is X; we have X; therefore, we are R.” See’s question is, arguably, “How do we know we have X?” and this will come down to axioms and probabilities. We don’t know (indubitably) we are not in The Matrix, but we can use some useful arguments to try to answer that.

Perhaps, for any form of suitably complex life, (potential) grasp of logic is a priori? Other animals appear to have a grasp of simple rationality, including dogs. Pavlov’s Dogs looks at a form of intuitive inductive reasoning, whereby inductive reasoning is inbuilt into the dogs’ physiology. If See wants to make sweeping statements, perhaps he should read up on certain ideas first: he could do with starting off with, say, the Wikipedia entry on “Animal Cognition“. Certain species are adept at problem-solving, which requires reasoning.

Do any of them know they are rational? No, because they don’t understand the word or those concepts. Why? Because they lack the language. Language and ideas are coextensive. Early humans would not have understood love or pride in any definitional sense (they might know they are feeling a thing that we might call pride). These ideas, or at least the understanding of these ideas, are built up upon language. the more complex the idea to understand, the greater the range, understanding and application of language needed to understand or know these things.

And yes, we need to define know.

But, for the time being, this should suffice to rebut the stance that See was taking with his opening question.

It takes much longer to answer these questions than to ask them. These are good questions, but ones that someone who professes to know X and Y, and to have the correct worldview, should have read enough about to answer themselves before offering them as ideas to knock down my position.

I will continue on down his list in due course because, hopefully, the explication of these ideas is useful for readers here.

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