Précis of epistemology/The search for reason
The will to know
The acquisition of knowledge is at first natural and involuntary. The development of instincts (Tinbergen 1951, Lorenz 1981), learning and memory (Hebb 1949, Kandel & Squire 1999, Damasio 1989, 2009) enable an animal to acquire knowledge throughout its life. The agent simply learns by living, even if it does not try to learn. But the acquisition of knowledge can also be the goal of a voluntary effort: the agent gives itself as an end the production of a knowledge and endeavors to act, even if only internally, in order to reach it. In other words, it wants to solve a problem it has posed.
How to look for what we do not know? If we do not know what we are looking for, we can not look for it. If we know what we are looking for, there is nothing to look for, since we already know it. So we can never look for anything. Where is the error in this sophistry of Meno, reported by Plato? It confuses the knowledge of a problem with the knowledge of its solution. We can know the conditions of a problem, so we know what we are looking for, without knowing its solution, so we do not know in advance what we hope to find.
To pose a problem is to give oneself an end, a goal, an objective. We have solved the problem when we have reached the end or when we know how to reach it. The desired end and the initial situation are the conditions of the problem.
A decision to make is a problem. The goal is inside. It is simply to make the decision, adoption or rejection of the project. Such a decision problem is determined by the project under review and by evaluation criteria. The desired end is that these criteria are met. Once the evaluation criteria are well defined, a problem of decision is in principle easy to solve. Just detect if the criteria are met. In this particular case, there are only two possibilities to examine, adopt or reject, but if the number of possibilities to be examined is very large, or infinite, knowing how to detect if the desired end is reached or not is not enough to solve the problem, because we can not look at all the possibilities.
The solution of a problem consists in general in assembling means to reach the desired end. The possibilities of composing the means with each other make that the space of the possibilities of solution is in general unlimited. We can always invent new compositions.
The means are intermediate ends, since to reach an end, it is first necessary to give oneself the goal of uniting the means.
A problem is practical when the goal is to transform the observable reality. A problem is cognitive when the goal is to imagine a solution. The solution of a practical problem is obtained when one has acted, while the solution of a cognitive problem is obtained when one has imagined it. Knowing how to solve cognitive problems is a fundamental skill, simply because we often have to imagine what we will do before we do it.
Asking and solving cognitive problems is a way of acting on oneself. We do not seek to transform the external reality but only to make ourselves knowledgeable.
When one must imagine or say what one will do before acting, one replaces a practical problem with a cognitive problem: to imagine an action or program of actions that solves the initial practical problem. One can then explore by imagination the space of the possibilities of solution. We can solve many problems without leaving our chair. Of course, one needs to know how to anticipate in order to determine by imagination whether a sequence of actions is feasible and whether it achieves the goal. When the knowledge acquired beforehand is sufficient, imagination alone, without action, makes it possible to find solutions. Thanks to our imagination, the knowledge already acquired is a springboard to acquire more knowledge.
A general problem-solving method is to identify all possible solutions (all possible actions and sequences of actions, for example) and to try them until one has found which achieves the desired goal. This method is very effective as long as the number of possibilities to try is not too great. But even the most powerful supercomputers can not solve certain problems in this way because the space of possibilities they have to try is far too great.
A heuristic is a problem-solving method that explores the space of solution possibilities by selecting some which look promising (Newell & Simon 1972, Russell & Norvig 2010). Learning through exercise can be seen as a resolution of a problem based on a simple heuristic. The problem is defined by the objectives which the desired know-how must attain and by their initial conditions. The possibilities of solution are the ways of acting that one can try. We start by selecting a possibility, not too bad if possible, then we experiment with variations and evaluate their results. We modify in successive stages the initial know-how while retaining the variations which seem to bring us closer to the desired know-how. In this way we explore the space of possibilities in small steps, moving from one way of doing things to another that seems to improve it. It is a form of learning through trial, error and success.
Problem solving is like a prayer. We have a problem and we pray to find the solution. We would not find the solution if we had not prayed. Praying gives us the solution.
Solving theoretical problems consists in using reasoning to increase our knowledge. A cognitive problem is theoretical when one is seeking by reasoning to answer a question. If we need to observe or experiment to find an answer, then the question is not a theoretical problem. The prior knowledge, the statement of the question and our faculties of reasoning must suffice to find the solution of a theoretical problem. If there is no reasoning to answer the question, it is because the theoretical problem is badly posed, or that its (meta)solution is to have no solution.
For a closed question, there are only two possible solutions, yes or no. For an open question, the solution must name or describe one or more beings which meet the conditions set out in the question. The beings thus named or described are then the solutions of the problem. For a theoretical problem to be solved, one must state its solutions and justify them, giving a reasoning which proves that they are truly solutions to the problem.
To be well posed, a theoretical problem to be a well-founded theoretical problem, it is necessary to make explicit all the conditions of the problem, including the principles which will serve us to reason to solve it.
In general, the statement of a problem is not sufficiently explicit to be a well-posed theoretical problem. We must find or choose ourselves the principles which will serve us to reason (Aristotle, Topics).
The acquisition of knowledge by the solution of theoretical problems requires a prior knowledge already acquired, from which we reason. Thanks to reasoning, the theoretical knowledge already acquired is a stepping stone for acquiring more knowledge.
Solving theoretical problems is a way of approaching the ideal of intelligibility. The more we know how to reason to answer the questions we ask about reality, the more intelligible it is.
Criticism is a heuristic
When fundamental premises are true by definition, in mathematics in particular, it is possible to give infallible proofs. If one is skeptical, just check the logical correction of the proof to remove any possibility of doubt. In the empirical sciences, it is sometimes possible to approach this ideal of infallibility when we have excellent theories whose principles are well verified by well-controlled experiments. But very generally our proofs and our knowledge are not infallible. If we demanded to knowledge that it be infallible to be honored as knowledge, we should deprive us of most of our knowledge. And we could not even develop any knowledge. A mature science, which has attained or has approached the ideal of infallibility, has not always been so. In its beginnings it was mingled with many errors or uncertainties.
Reason is naturally and necessarily fallible because it is in perpetual development. In order that the truth of a statement may be decided infallibly, its meaning must be determined with precision. But that is not how we usually use speech. And that is not desirable. Most often our words are given to be interpreted. We invent new interpretations, new meanings and new expressions every day. Even principles are not immutable, because from the same principle we can invent innumerable variations. The multitude of possibilities of interpretation is vital to the acquisition of knowledge and to the development of reason, but it makes them very fallible, because the truth of a statement depends on its interpretation.
A behavior or an action program is fault-tolerant when error does not prevent it from working properly. If errors occur, they are simply repaired or corrected, and the system continues to function. This is often the case, not always, for the acquisition and use of knowledge. Fortunately. Otherwise we could not develop reason.
If reason were generally infallible, criticism would be reduced to the examination of the evidence. Once their infallibility is verified there would be no room for doubt or discussion. But generally reason is not infallible.
One can doubt a proof by suspecting its logical correction. Most often our reasoning is not completely explicit. We leave in the dark a part of the premises necessary to infer our conclusions, because they seem rather obvious. Explicating everything would be tedious. But this use of the implicit sometimes hides errors of logic. To detect them, the implicit must be made explicit.
Even when its logical correction is not suspect, one can doubt a proof by doubting its premises. We justify our knowledge by proofs based on principles. But the principles must themselves be justified. They have to prove themselves by helping us develop good knowledge. Everyone can use his own experience to put principles to the test and learn to recognize their value. But one must not limit oneself to one's own experience. When one takes a principle as the basis of a reasoning, one implicitly asserts that it has a universal value, that it can serve all those who want to reason. A principle must therefore be put to the test of all the experiences of all human beings. A principle proves itself by helping all human beings develop good knowledge.
In order to evaluate our proofs we must voluntarily submit them to the criticism of all human beings and respect the principle of equivalence of all observers. Objections and attempts at refutation may lead us to modify our reasoning, and sometimes even to abandon it, if refutation is decisive. We develop knowledge by preserving the principles and the proofs which resist the critical tests and renouncing the others.
All the development of knowledge can be conceived as the resolution of a single and vast problem. The objective is a knowledge which satisfies our desire for intelligibility. We explore the space of possibilities whenever we examine knowledge in order to evaluate it. Critical tests are designed to select promising opportunities. Criticism is therefore a heuristic that helps us to solve the problem of the development of reason (Goodman 1955, Rawls 1971, Depaul 2006).
The discovery of reason
As one can simulate by imagination a critical dialogue, imagine that he must defend what he pretends to know in front of a skeptic who wants to refute him, he can obtain the benefits of criticism simply by exercising his thought alone. But the development of reason is above all a collective work (Leibniz 1688-1690, Goldman 1999), to which every human being can participate as soon as he wants, as he knows that he is capable of it and as he voluntarily submits to its discipline: justification, evaluation and criticism.
We do not know in advance the scope of our ability to solve problems. We discover it through exercise. By solving problems, we become more aware of our abilities. The better we know them, the more we can extend their field of application. We thus discover ourselves as rational beings, that is, capable of developing reason. All the developments of reason are discoveries, because we do not know what reason will reveal to us before we get to work. We discover that we are able to invent or reveal reason.
Where is the grain to grind?
Reason is to develop universal knowledge in common, honestly seeking truths and proofs, respecting the principle of equivalence of all observers, and more generally by voluntarily submitting to all the rules of critical thinking.
Critical discipline enables us to develop reason by putting theories to the test. It is like a mill, intended to give good flour, good knowledge, from the theories we give it. But where does one find the grain to grind? Where do the theories that we submit to criticism come from?
There is no need to look very far: everything that goes through our minds and everything we say, common-sense thoughts, or contrary to common-sense, trivial or original intuitions, even dreams and delusions, because they make us think and speak. Any thought is a candidate for critical review, but of course we do not want anything. We look for thoughts that help us develop good knowledge, or make us hope that they can help us.
When we search for knowledge, we sometimes feel as if we are lost in a forest in search of a treasure whose location we do not know, and there is enough to despair. It would take a miracle to find it. But it is an illusion, because the location of the treasure is known in advance. It can only be in ourselves. When we seek knowledge, we seek ourselves because we seek knowledge that makes us competent. There is no other place to look. Where could knowledge be if it was not already potentially in ourselves?
Good knowledge is the knowledge that makes us competent
How do we recognize good knowledge? It is the knowledge that makes us competent. There is no more fundamental criterion. Good knowledge is by definition the knowledge that makes us competent.
I am for myself the fundamental criterion of recognition of good knowledge, since I recognize it by recognizing my competence. But this autonomy is rational only if it is united. Good knowledge is not only the knowledge that makes me competent, it is above all the knowledge that makes us competent. Knowledge must be shared to be rational. When I acquire knowledge, I must acquire at the same time the capacity to teach it, otherwise my knowledge is not rational. To develop reason, we must work together. Isolated individual knowledge is not enough to make reason.
I am the source, the middle and the end of reason. Not me as different from all others but as similar to all others. All I, all who can think that they are, who can say "I", are the sources, the middle and the ends of reason, the sources because reason is born of our thoughts, the middle because it develops when we work for it, the ends because it is there so that we can accomplish ourselves.
One can reason about reason as if it were the wisdom of a person and attribute to it a will because one can attribute to it ends. Ethics teaches us what deserves to be pursued and thus gives us the means to fulfill ourselves. That we pursue the ends that reason prescribes for us may just be considered as an end of reason. Everything happens as if reason was a good authority that shows us the right paths.
Knowing that a mind must work for the mind is not enough to decide the particular ends we give ourselves. This is expected of a good authority. If it deprived us of our freedom, it would not be a good authority. Rational ethical knowledge is not a totalitarian enterprise that decides for us what we need to do. It is the exact opposite since it asks us to decide freely and intelligently. One can even say that it is a condition of true freedom, because one makes a bad use of one's freedom if one does not use it for good. The more we know the good, the better we can do it and live like a really free spirit.
The unity of reason
For knowledge to be shared, it must draw only on common resources, accessible to all. One might think that it is a very restrictive limit, that by depriving oneself of private resources, one also deprives oneself of the best of knowledge, but the exact opposite is true. Our intelligences are the most powerful just when they are limited to common resources. It is by helping each other that we discover best the power of our intelligences, that we develop the best knowledge and that we make reason live.
Despite their diversity, all knowledge manifests the unity of reason. The great principles of logic and critical discipline are the same for all. Such unity is essential to the development of science. All that is understood by some must be understood by all the others, otherwise it is not reason. From this point of view it can be said that all sciences speak with one voice and that all human beings contribute to the development of common knowledge.
The unity of reason does not exclude diversity; on the contrary, it encourages it. The great logical principles, for example, never forbid us to study theories. On the contrary, they always give us the means to study all theories as soon as they are properly formulated.
« You shall love your neighbor as yourself » (Leviticus 19:18) is not only a religious principle, it is also a rationalist principle, because the sciences and reason can develop only through mutual help and cooperation. If human beings do not want to help each other, reason can not be among them.
Is reason only a human invention?
To know that reason exists, we need to make it exist, by sharing it among us. In this sense, we do it. It would not be here if we did not work to make it live among us. But the belief that reason is our invention is wrong, because we do not decide what it is, we can not make that it is what it is not, or that it is not what it is. When we work we discover it. Everything happens as if reason had always been there forever, and we are the last to learn it.
The conditions for the appearance of reason are general: beings who speak and who want to find together truths and proofs, respecting the principle of equivalence of observers and all rules of critical thinking. These conditions do not depend specifically on our humanity on Earth. Other living beings, on other planets, in other times, or in other universes, could also develop the same reason, because its conditions of appearance are universal.
What can we hope?
Before looking, we usually have to look for what to look for, to choose for ourselves the problems we will be working on. But we do not really know what to look for when looking for what to look for. We want interesting problems, promising topics, we dream of making major discoveries, to advance knowledge and reason. But the conditions of the problem are not well determined. What are we looking for when we are trying to advance reason? And how can we look for it if we do not know what we are looking for?
Reason makes us capable, but of what? What can we achieve with the skills we develop rationally? What can we hope?
If the list of problems that we can solve rationally was known in advance, we would know what to hope. But precisely, it is not known in advance. We do not know the range of skills that reason can give us.
We want to satisfy a desire for intelligibility. We want to understand. We want explanations. We do not know where this leads us, but it is not necessary to know it to be driven by this desire. We may want without knowing very well what we want, just looking for satisfaction. We are guided by ideas even if we do not know what they are.
As we do not know what reason makes us capable of, we can place our hopes very high, that the kingdom of reason come, that its will be done in earth, as it is in heaven, that the ephemeral present be the splendor of eternal truth, or very low, reason will never be more than a poor consolation in a valley of tears.
The development of reason is the story of a perpetually renewed astonishment. The sciences have exceeded our expectations. Nature has revealed many more secrets than we could dream. It is no longer possible to be skeptical. The power of science has become indisputable.
To know what reason makes us capable of, the best way, and the only way, is to try. If we do not try we have no chance to see what works. That's why we have to hope. We sin more often by lack of hope than by excess.