The Nature of Knowledge


Science, Evolution, and Philosophy

This is not about the relationship of philosophy to science, which is a very important subject. A correct philosophy is the foundation of all disciplines, especially science, and that foundation is sorely neglected among today's intellectuals.

What this chapter addresses is the opposite relationship, that which science bears to philosophy. The general principle of either relationship is, there is no contradiction between true philosophy and true science. If a contradiction appears between any aspect of science and any principle of philosophy, either philosophy at the point, or science at that point, or both are mistaken.

If one regards religion as man's earliest efforts to answer philosophical questions, as Ayn Rand did, then science definitely influenced philosophy benevolently, sweeping away many of the wrong ideas that held sway under the domination of religion. The success of science was undoubtedly influential in moving philosophical thinking from the domination of authority and mysticism to thinking based on objective reason. Science, however, was not the source of philosophical ideas, science only demonstrated the power of reason over "faith," and, "credulity."

The specific question I want to address is whether or not any aspect of philosophy is determined by or is dependent on science. Does any discovery of science determine any philosophical principle? The reason for this question is because Dr. Binswanger bases much of his philosophy on biology and evolution.

Philosophy Is Not Informed by Science.

Ayn Rand, and therefore Objectivism, rejects the idea that philosophy is in any way dependent on or determined by scientific knowledge.

"Philosophical problems have to be solved on a level of knowledge available to a normal adult at any period of human development; so that philosophical concepts are really not dependent on the development of individual sciences." [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, "Appendix—Definitions."]

"Philosophy by its nature has to be based only on that which is available to the knowledge of any man with normal mental equipment. Philosophy is not dependent on the discoveries of science; the reverse is true.

"So whenever you are in doubt about what is or is not a philosophical subject, ask yourself whether you need a specialized knowledge, beyond the knowledge available to you as a normal adult, unaided by any special knowledge or special instruments. And if the answer is possible to you on that basis alone, you are dealing with a philosophical question. If to answer it you would need training in physics, or psychology, or special equipment, etc., then you are dealing with a derivative or scientific field of knowledge, not philosophy." [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, "Appendix—Philosophy of Science."]

Nevertheless, most Objectivists, and even Rand herself, do not always heed this principle.

"Thus, measurement-relationships underlie the two basic operations of the conceptual level: concept-formation and conceptual identification. Concept-formation operates by measurement-omission (to establish a range) and conceptual identification operates by measurement-inclusion ... The child, of course, is aware only of similarity and difference, not of the underlying measurement-relationships, which is a phenomenon identified by the epistemologist." [Page 174]

Is it true that the "epistemologist" discovers a "scientific (i.e. mathematical) method" as the basis for concepts? Science and mathematics do not inform philosophy. If they did, every new scientific discovery and every new development in mathematics would invalidate previous philosophy. Measurement is not directly perceived; it is a very high-level concept, and an epistemological method. If concept formation depended on some scientific method, there would never have been any knowledge. A method of concept formation cannot depend on a method of measurement which cannot be developed without advanced concepts in mathematics and physical relationships.

To attribute to existence, nature, or reality characteristics or qualities of the human mind or human methods, such as purpose, science, language, mathematics, or logic, is reification or hypostatization. Dr. Binswanger repeats these fallacies throughout his book. He does it here. Even if every physical attribute and relationship could be described by means of measurement (they cannot), measurement is not an attribute of anything.

Every measurement is the application of an arbitrary concept (unit of measure) with only epistemological (not metaphysical) existence to relationships: linear, geometric, volumetric, temperature, force, motion, etc. Before the concepts of measurement can exist, entities with such attributes as length, shape, volume, temperature, weight, and action must be perceived. After they are perceived as the existents they are by means of their perceivable qualities from which we form our concepts of length, shape, volume, temperature, weight, and action, the method of measurement can be invented as a means of describing the relationship between differences in length, shape, volume, temperature, weight, and action. While measurement can be used to describe such differences, measurement cannot be used to describe the presence or absence of any particular quality in any particular existent. Measurement cannot fully describe physical existence, not even to identify (or differentiate) existents of the same kind. [See the chapter, "Methods."]

Neither Evolution or Biology Provide Philosophical Principles.

Whether or not evolution is a correct explanation for the origin of life or the variety of different species that have lived or presently live on this planet, Dr. Binswanger's use of evolution as a basis for many of his philosophical assertions is wrong for three reasons: 1. his assertion that all living characteristics are biological in nature, 2. his assumption that survival is the reason and purpose of all characteristics of living organisms, 3. his presumption that there is any purpose or meaning in any aspect of nature, except such purposes and meanings identified and pursued by human beings.

Everything is Biology

The worst of Dr. Binswanger's mistakes is that he has reduced everything to the biological.

"An organism's actions are adapted to securing its survival. Consciousness, like the heartbeat, is a biological activity that evolved because it promotes survival." [Page 37]

"Consciousness is biological equipment. Awareness evolved for its survival function—to guide the actions of conscious organisms." [Page 332]

Is biological life the reason for every symphony, every work of fiction, for every moment of love and affection, for every technological achievement that increases the enjoyment of life for every human being that uses them? Is the whole reason for one's love of literature just biology? Is the whole reason for one's desire to achieve what no one else has ever achieved just biology?

Dr. Binswanger has the order of things wrong. If there were no physical existence, there could be no life, because life is an attribute of physical organisms, but life does not exist for the sake of the physical. If there were no life, there would be no consciousness, because consciousness is an attribute of living organisms, but consciousness does not exist for the sake of life. If there were no consciousness there would be no human minds, because minds are attributes of living conscious organisms, but the mind does not exist for the sake of consciousness. Consciousness and the human mind do not exist to make life (or survival) possible, it is life that makes consciousness possible, and consciousness that makes the human mind possible.

Binswanger's view makes consciousness and the human mind exist for the sake of the perpetuation of protoplasm, and the perpetuation of protoplasm the ultimate reason for everything. This not only flies in the face of Rand's Objectivism, but any objective view of meaning and ethics. To live "by means of achievement—not survival at any price," is the objective. There is a reason Rand emphasized it is to live, "qua man," that is the basis of ethics. Survival is not the objective; the objective is being all that is possible to be as a human being.

As far as nature is concerned there are no purposes, nothing happens or exists as a means to any end or goal. To say that consciousness or anything exists as a survival function implies they exist for the sake of survival. Nothing in nature happens for some purpose. (Whose purpose would it be? Have Objectivist's become theists?)

Both consciousness, and the human mind, as well as all the other attributes of living organisms may be necessary to their survival, and in functioning provide that survival, but that is not their, "purpose," any more than the purpose of the heat that produces the pressure in a geyser is to make the geyser spurt, or the purpose of the sun is to warm the earth and give lovely women beautiful tans.

There are no purposes, goals, or ends except those which human beings identify and choose. The ultimate goal or end for every human being is to be all one can possibly be as a human being and all other goals and purposes are subordinate and proximate ends to that ultimate purpose. Life only has a purpose to human beings and only in relation to the ultimate purpose of being and achieving all one can as a human being, and only as a means to that end.

The measure of life is not in how long it lasts (survival). The measure of life is how much "living" an organism accomplishes. An individual's life is not measured by what one has, what one experiences, or what happens to them, but in what they do and achieve. Living is doing; life does not consist of what happens to you, life consists of what you do.

That is why those who have become wealthy or famous or powerful by being cheats, or liars, or fakes, or thieves can never be fully satisfied as human beings. It does not matter what anyone else believes or thinks you are; you can fool the whole world, but you cannot fool your own consciousness and nature.

Survival and Purpose

[NOTE: This section is adapted from the chapter, "Animal Life."]

Dr. Binswanger holds that all aspects of life evolved to provide living organisms attributes that would provide them survival, and that survival is the ultimate objective or purpose. I'm sure that Dr. Binswanger does not regard evolution as teleological or that evolution is driven by some objective such as producing an organism with the maximum possibility of surviving.

Natural selection is a way of viewing the accidental result of some species being better at surviving then others, so are "selected" merely by surviving when the others perish. Individual survival in the evolutionary scheme cannot be deduced from the theory of evolution. It is not, in any case, how Rand arrived at her understanding of the nature and importance of survival.

"There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "1. The Objectivist Ethics"]

She was writing in terms of ethics and was making the point that values only matter where there is some kind of alternative and that the only existents that faced any kind of alternative were living organisms, and that alternative was, "life or death." She makes the further point that the only living creatures that actually consciously face the alternative of life or death are human beings, and therefore the only ones who needed or are capable of having a code of ethics.

There is a Purpose For Life, But Life is not the Purpose

"The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man."

I want to emphasize that Ayn Rand frequently used this phrase, "man's survival qua man;" she used it at least five times in The Virtue of Selfishness alone.

While it is true the only existents for which there is an alternative, to exist or not exist, are living organisms, there is only one organism that actually faces that alternative as a choice. All other organisms are required by their natures to live in a certain way to survive, and that same nature makes them live in that way, and they have no choice about it. Only human beings ever have to make the choice to be or not to be.

But for a human being it is not a choice of simply surviving or not, which is the reason why Ayn Rand emphasized that it is surviving, "qua man," that is, as a human being.

The reason is explained by Rand:

"Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man's survival qua man. It does not mean ... "survival at any price." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "1. The Objectivist Ethics"]

She repeats the same thought in Galt's speech:

"Man's life, as required by his nature, is not the life of a mindless brute, of a looting thug or a mooching mystic, but the life of a thinking being--not life by means of force or fraud, but life by means of achievement--not survival at any price, since there's only one price that pays for man's survival: reason." [Emphasis mine.] [Atlas Shrugged, Part Three / Chapter VII, "This Is John Galt Speaking"]

Let me summarize: Man's life, as required by his nature, is life by means of achievement, not survival at any price. According to Binswanger's hypothesis, however, [and anyone else who accepts the premise that survival is the ultimate principle], "life at any price," is exactly what the ultimate principle of life would be. If survival is not the ultimate principle, (and it is not), than something else must be.

It is obvious why Rand emphasized that it is, "man's survival qua man," that is the ultimate value, not just survival. Except for human beings there is no reason or purpose for anything. In the physical world nothing matters. It is only to human life that anything matters, because most life just exists, not able to care if it exists or not. It is only human consciousness to which anything really matters, and it is only to human beings that questions of values or purposes pertain.

Purpose and meaning do not begin with life, or even consciousness. Purpose and meaning begin with the only beings capable of having purposes or understanding meaning. If the reason for consciousness and the human mind were for the sake of survival, it would make consciousness and the human mind nothing more than functions subservient to perpetuating life. But that view is all wrong.

Nothing is of value just because it exists. There are no intrinsic values. Neither life or consciousness, or even the human mind are of value simply because they exist. A thing can only be of value in relation to some objective or purpose, that is, to beings capable of having objectives and purposes. Those objectives and purposes must be objectively determined in relation to an ultimate purpose. Dr. Binswanger makes life the ultimate purpose. It is not.

The only organisms that have an ultimate purpose are human beings, and their purpose is to enjoy their life by being all they possibly can be as human beings and they can only have that purpose by discovering and identifying it. To fulfill that purpose a human being must have a mind with which to think and make choices and to gain the knowledge necessary to think with and about. To have a mind a human being must be conscious, and to be conscious a human being must be living, and to be living a human being must be a physical organism.

Survival is not the ultimate value or purpose. If anything, the physical is a support mechanism for life, the biological exists as a foundation for consciousness, and consciousness exists for the sake of the human mind.

The ultimate purpose of life for any organism is to live successfully as the kind of organism it is, but no animal is conscious of any such purpose, because it is not a purpose in a teleological sense. It is merely an observation of how living organisms' natures work. For human beings it means enjoying ones life to the fullest by being all one can possibly be as a human bing, in achievement, in knowledge, in integrity, and in every other virtue, and only human beings can be conscious of such a purpose. To achieve that ultimate purpose one must live, but for human beings, living is only a proximate end, a means to the ultimate end. Life is not the only proximate end; to fulfill their ultimate purpose, a human being must also be physical, conscious, and have a mind, and must develop and maintain all those attributes but those attributes are not the purpose, the attributes are only the means of achieving the purpose.

To describe anything purposive outside the context of the human mind is a form of reification, and anthropomorphism. There is no meaning, purpose, value, or reason to or for anything except to the human mind.

Choice and a Reason for Living

It is true life is an alternative, but a true alternative requires the ability to choose. Whether or not an organism survives depends on what it does, but the animal has no choice about it—it must do what it does because instinct determines what it does.

A human's purpose is not a biological one. Biology provides the physical aspects of an organism, but it is life that makes it an organism, and it is consciousness that determines its purpose and nature; for man it is the mind that provides the reason for living, because for man, mere survival is not living, and because even to live a human being must choose to live, and to choose anything, a human being must have a reason. Though the reason will be different for every human being, those reasons will all be versions of the same principles, to be and achieve all one can as a human being. For the moral individual, death is preferable to living as anything less than fully human. What evolutionary selection pressure produced that?