Sunday, October 25, 2009

On How We Know: The Prerequisite of Reason

This is the second in my series of On How We Know. The introduction can be found here, and a full listing of articles can be found here.

It might be said that the role or use of reason is a doubled edged sword which can greatly help or hinder those who use it. On the one hand, reason is something that is necessary for our existence as it is an integral part of our identity and allows us to understand, solve and overcome many of the problems of life. It give us our quality of life and allows us to understand and comprehend things beyond our own experience. In this respect it is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. It is a tool to make all tools. But this powerful tool can be mislead and misguided. If we use it at the exclusion of all of the other modes of knowing, then our own reasonings can lead us into erroneous conclusions from which it can be difficult to extract ourselves. Now not all false reasonings will lead us into such a dismal mire of intellectual quicksand, but very rarely will you find quicksand on dry, solid ground.

To begin the process of understanding the proper role of reason let us consider two examples. The first is an experience that I had a few weeks ago while teaching some of my students about Newton's Laws. My students were performing an experiment to prove Newton's first law. The experiment consisted of balancing different forces in order to achieve equilibrium. In discussing the lab with some of my students I asked them about the uncertainty associated with the lab, as in, how much certain variables could change and they would still get the same result. At this point I asked my students which of the two important variables they were measuring had a greater effect on the overall uncertainty of the experiment (to get an idea of what I am talking about, imagine flying in an airplane from New York to Los Angeles. To get there I need a bearing (direction) and a distance. If I am off by one mile in the distance it is not as critical, but if I am off by one degree I could end up missing my target by more than 50 miles. In this case the uncertainty in the bearing is more important than the uncertainty in the distance.). So I asked my students to tell me which of the variables they were dealing with was more important to the uncertainty, and after I got some answers with an explanation of their reasoning I asked the question, "How do you know that?" At that point I got blank and dumbfounded stares from my students, as if to say, "What do you mean, "How do we know that"?" This group of students had just given me their answer, they had thought it through, given me their reasons as for why they thought they were correct and then when I asked them to back up their reasoning with "proof" (i.e. another mode of knowing) they were floored. It was as if it had never occurred to them that thinking about something and coming up with a good "reason" was not sufficient "proof".

The attitude of my students is hardly an isolated incident, but is indicative of a more general attitude found among those who commonly use reason to understand the world. A more striking example of this type of attitude can be found in the early works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the famous introduction to his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he states, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved." So firm was his conviction that in his short book he had managed to solve all of the problems of philosophy and logic that he thereafter left his studies at Cambridge and did not return for eight years.

In both of these examples the common element is a firm belief that what has been reasoned out is correct and there is no more need to continue with an investigation or even to reason further. Certainly there is the temptation that when we have thought about something to a sufficient degree and come to a resolution, we think that there is no further need to reason it out and understand it more, let alone use any of the other modes of knowing to confirm our reasoning. Like Wittgenstein there is the tendency to think that when we have come to the logical conclusion of our thoughts then there is no more and nothing further to be understood or considered about the topic.

So what is the remedy for this way of thinking? How do we escape this way of approaching learning, which if unchecked will result in our misunderstanding the nature of things? The answer, though simple, is almost unheard of, or even entirely unheard of, in the realm of epistemology. Quite simply, the remedy for these ailments is humility. In a brief search of The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not a single article about humility is given, and most references to humility are under the category of religion, and not knowledge. There is a reference to humility in a article on wisdom but humility is ultimately written off as "not promising". This is unfortunate because if humility was taken as the necessary prerequisite to reason then that would solve most, if not all, philosophical problems.

So why humility? Why would I call it a prerequisite for reason? In explaining this I will give my reasons for thinking this, but without considering the full implications, the rest is left as an exercise to interested reader.

Humility is a necessary prerequisite to reason because it is what allows us to use reason and to learn from it. Using reason without humility is an ineffectual exercise of the mind, yielding no useful results. To give a personal example, I once was considering a philosophical problem well known for its difficulty, it had to do with the issue of Divine knowledge and free will. In my mind there was an irreconcilable conflict between the two. It was something that I could not, for all the time and effort I put into thinking about it, reconcile what I considered to be an impenetrable barrier separating me from the answer. I even discussed the idea with others but to no avail. Some simply resorted to calling it a mystery and refused to discuss it further. But I was not content.

Many years later I had the opportunity to take a class on general relativity. After wading through six months of a rather difficult class, the teacher paused to point out a minor result that came from a rather complex set of equations. It was in that instant that my troubles with the issue of Divine knowledge and free will were dispelled. Now, what my professor pointed out did not give the answer or the solution to the problem, but at least in my mind, I now understood that it was possible for there to be a solution. It was as if I were standing on the top of a very tall mountain and I suddenly understood the extent of the intellectual journey I would have to take to finally reach the answer, but at least I knew that there was a resolution.

To give you the scope of the understanding that I came to, from the time that I had first seriously considered the problem, to when I had my "Aha!" moment, five years had passed. I was most of the way through an undergraduate degree in physics. I had embarked on a course of study that required me to learn general relativity, arguably one of the most difficult concepts in all of physics, and only after all that could I come to the point where I could say, "Aha! There is an answer." Even though I did not know what the answer was I could know that there was an answer.

Now you may be wondering how a class on general relativity resolved one of the most difficult problems in all of Western Philosophy. To answer that you would need a degree in physics, and to take a good course in general relativity, not to mention years of considering the problem and personally considering all the options. But for those who don't have the time or the desire to receive a degree in physics, the only other option available to resolve issues similar to the conflict between Divine knowledge and free will, is humility.

There were several things I learned from this experience and I will mention a few of them here. First I learned that humility was a necessary prerequisite to learning anything through reason. Without humility we cannot begin to understand things beyond our own experience, which is the whole purpose and end of our reason. Second I learned that the answers to specific questions may come from unexpected sources, and this recognition is intrinsically related to humility. When I first considered the issue of Divine knowledge and free will I had no idea that I would have to learn a lot of math and a lot of general relativity before I could resolve that issue in my mind. But as I had asked for the answer from Someone who knew how to give it, it was in effect the perfect method to answer my question. This taught me that, I as the student, the one who did not know the answer, could not dictate the answer to the Teacher, the One who knew the answer. Again this proved to me that humility is the prerequisite to learning by reason.

So what do we do when we have humility? With humility we acknowledge our weakness and ignorance, and begin the process of being taught by One who knows. Then, as Joseph Smith put it, ". . . Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach Him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God, and know how to come to Him, He begins to unfold the heavens to us, and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to Him, He is ready to come to us.”9 (From Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Ch. 2)