Prompt #6: All knowledge claims should be open to rational criticism. On what grounds and to what extent would you agree with this assertion?
Suppose that an alien spacecraft hovering thousands of kilometers above the Earth is watching and studying us six and a half billion humans and a countless number of other species. I, like most of us who value life, would be rather disappointed if the alien were to initiate the total annihilation of our planet. I definitely want to exist! Why did I firmly reject the idea of the destruction of Earth; what caused my decision? To me, this rather obvious judgment comes not from rational criticism, but from instinct, a subconscious emotion; certainly I do not want the human race or even myself to die. In this case, Emotion’s intuition appears to have outweighed Reason’s rationality. Indeed, if rational criticism were to apply to all knowledge claims, certain subjective, non-universal knowledge claims would seem impossible to validate. In objective Areas of Knowledge, the use of Reason is vital, yet in subjective Areas, knowledge claims do not have to be open to rational criticism and can still function effectively in societal and human conscience. Thus, if I were to measure the assertion of the prompt based on personal and societal utility, I would disagree with respect to the subjective Areas of Knowledge.
First, I shall describe a knowledge claim where rational criticism is fully justified, and then demonstrate another that must be analyzed in a different way. Let us talk about Reason applied across Mathematics. As my favorite subject, Math is perhaps the grand pillar of truth in that we may know a fact with total, absolute certainty. For instance, given a real number x, the value x² must be zero or positive. For any valid value of x, this knowledge claim must always be true! However, this ‘always’ relation hardly occurs in a subjective area such as Ethics, in which it is ‘generally’ wrong to kill another human being, but in the exceptional case of self-defense, murder may be the only plausible course of survival. This very idea of an exception is like x² sometimes being negative: a mathematician’s worst nightmare!
So far, I have merely outlined the two knowledge claims; now I will apply rational criticism with the key assumption that it is valid for both. Looking at the first claim, I find it fairly easy to prove with rational logic:
- A real number is either zero, negative, or positive.
- Zero squared is zero.
- Negative squared is positive.
- Positive squared is positive.
- Therefore, a real number squared must be either zero or positive.
Reason works splendidly in this proof. However, if I use a similar line of rationality on the second claim, the key assumption will be shown to be incorrect:
- It is wrong to . . . what does ‘wrong’ mean? I know that it is wrong to murder another human because our society says so. But why should I trust society? This human society is the one that has murdered millions in world wars. . . .
This knowledge claim in Ethics seems impenetrable to an attack through Reason. However, a breakthrough can be made if we flank it through Emotion:
- It is wrong to murder another human being because he or she deserves to live.
- I do not want to die.
- Thus it is permissible to murder if my life is at stake.
By this point, a careful reader may have raised the objection: “You’re comparing two entirely separate claims!” That is in fact my point. That these two knowledge claims are so far apart lends to the the idea that that one method may not be appropriate for evaluating every claim. Indeed, as the French novelist Marcel Proust once put it, we may “think and name in one world… [but] live and feel in another” (Proust in Van de Lagemaat 145). It follows directly that Reason does not fully apply to Ethical dilemmas, just as Emotion would not seem terribly useful in solving Mathematical challenges.
To solidify this point, I will study Emotion across Art, another subjective Area. Professor Langley wrote: “A very gifted artist once told me that he was unable to create anything of value unless the environment and some object or objects perceived were such as to throw him into a condition of emotional excitement…. Something of this kind must be true of all creative artists” (Langley 90-91). If indeed the key ingredient of Art is Emotion, then how can artwork be open to criticism through Reason? It certainly seems that with respect to Reason, the Arts and Ethics are widely separate from Mathematics.
However, providing an explanation for why these Areas of Knowledge are so different in response to Reason is a more complex task, and I believe the only way to answer this is to delve into the heart of Reason itself, rooted in the Natural Sciences. Though we have advanced enormously since the advent of the scientific method, rationality has remained the foundation of all branches of science. Because of this very nature of the Natural Sciences, Reason is not only applicable, but obligatory in order to answer such knowledge issues.
As my favorite example of the use of Reason across the Natural Sciences, a well-known inquiry of twentieth century physics investigated the plausibility of nuclear fusion in the Sun, a process that is directly responsible for all life on Earth. Due to the strength of the electromagnetic force, the protons that are supposed to collide together in nuclear fusion would never move sufficiently close to one another since the net force between any two protons is repulsive. According to the formulas then available, the protons simply did not have enough energy to overcome the repulsive barrier and collide together, producing the fantastic amounts of energy and light that we see in the Sun today. It was a troubling problem, but was nonetheless overcome through Reason. The solution to this problem involved quantum mechanics, where a dazzling theoretical phenomenon known as quantum tunneling allowed particles to move randomly and instantaneously to another location for no apparent reason. A proton in the Sun now had a chance to tunnel close enough to a nearby proton and initiate the fusion process. It was a bizarre answer, but it did provide an accurate working model. In fact, a certain modern medical instrument and marvel, the scanning tunneling microscope, is based on the concept of quantum tunneling.
I think it is truly amazing that a concept artificially crafted by Reason to explain one cosmic phenomenon can actually be a universal law of nature with such profound application to human life. From this example, I see that Reason is an extraordinary Way of Knowing, in that it spawns knowledge claims based on other claims, similarly to a mathematical proof. In this respect, Reason is self-propagating, like a chain reaction in a nuclear explosion. The use of strict Reason would be futile to the subjective Areas of Knowledge, because each step of the chain would be based partly on uncertainty, and over many steps, the actual certainty would dwindle down to zero, resulting in no burst of knowledge. However, when Reason is applied to the more objective areas, the chain reaction is much more effective because its strength grows during each step. Thus, Reason depends heavily on certainty, and hence operates uniquely with the different Areas of Knowledge, which have different degrees of certainty.
An interesting counterclaim to my position contests that Reason is crafted by the individual and must therefore be applicable to all knowledge claims, whether they are objective or not. My friend Arin, who debates me all the time, introduced this point, explaining how one could rationally criticize something emotional such as a death in the family. Emotion would evoke mourning and grief, but Reason could provide an impetus to overcome these feelings and to view the situation in a more objective light. My response to this counterclaim is that the validity of rational criticism depends on the knowledge claim at stake rather than the method of Reason itself. For instance, I could assert that x² cannot be negative, and the alien watching us would agree. No matter where we go in this universe, that assertion would not change. However, if the claim were instead about the ethics of murder, the alien and I might have completely contrasting views. In the former claim, its universality made it objective, and in the latter, its variability made it subjective. To be sure, part of our rationality is definitely personal and thus subjective, but we also share a part that is universal and hence objective.
Through the use of Reason, I have convinced myself that rational criticism is not fully applicable to subjective claims. As a Knower reflecting upon the alien observing Earth, I see a new situation in that the alien, being nonhuman, cannot possibly know human Ethics. How can we explain our innate desire of life to a species that may have a completely different set of moral laws? The overall implication is that communicating ourselves to an alien race, a different culture, or just a different group of people may be significantly harder than we may at first expect if we do not possess a shared view of the subjective Areas of Knowledge, despite how rational we are. Their perspectives simply are different from ours. No doubt, Reason is a powerful tool, but it alone will surely not be our instrument of survival in a multicultural conflict or against a belligerent alien race.
Langley, G. H. “Reason.” Proceedings of Aristotelian Society Vol 39 (1939): 85-98. JSTOR. Westwood High School, Austin. 12 Sep. 2009 .
Van de Lagemaat, Richard. Theory of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.