About two weeks ago, I read a scientific report that challenged my perceptions about the relationship between philosophy and science. So much so, that it forced me to doubt some of my erstwhile convictions about the value of logic and prompted me to revise major elements of my global world view. As it turns out, an empirically-based study indicated, within a 1% margin of error, that there are more people in the city of Los Angeles than in the entire state of California. I would never have accepted this counter-intuitive claim had there been no evidence to support it.
At this point, my readers might wonder how I could be so pathologically gullible as to accept such an absurd proposition. Or, more likely, they will recognize my scenario as a playful exercise in misdirection that conveys an important point: No amount of evidence or appeal to the authority of science could ever invalidate a self-evident truth. The city of Los Angeles simply cannot have more people than the entire state of California. Any such claim would violate one of the first principles of right reason: A finite whole can never be less than any one of its parts. Drawing on that same principle, I can be equally certain that a man’s head cannot displace more water than his entire body or that our sun cannot weigh more than the solar system of which it is a part.
On reflection, we should be able to appreciate the significance of these examples and place them in the context of a broader principle: Evidence does not inform the rules of right reason; the rules of right reason inform evidence. That is because self-evident truths, the starting point from which all rational inquiry begins, provide the means by which all other truth claims, scientific or otherwise, must be evaluated. Accordingly, we don’t reason our way TO these principles; we reason our way FROM them. Evidence, at least of the scientific variety, cannot invalidate or pass judgment on them because evidence is the thing being validated and judged.
Among reason’s most authoritative judges, the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, and the Law of the Excluded middle reign supreme. Ontologically, a thing cannot be what it is and also be something else. Logically and psychologically, a proposition cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same sense. The thinking process begins with the understanding of what is and what cannot be. Without this constraint, that is, without the ability to rule things out, reasoned analysis and meaningful dialogue are impossible. One can say, “If A, then B”, only if everything except B is understood to be an impossible consequence of A.
Postmodernist skeptics often try to argue that these points apply only to our mental framework and the ways that we think about things. The careful reader will notice, though, that the aforementioned laws are both objectively and subjectively true. They apply to both the world as it is (ontology) and the world as we perceive it (epistemology). That is why we can differentiate between a sound argument, which is both internally consistent and consistent with truths found in the real world, and a valid argument, which may only meet the first condition. If one begins with a true premise about the real world and reasons perfectly, he will arrive at a true conclusion about the real world; if one begins with a false premise and reasons perfectly, he will arrive at a false conclusion. In terms of logic and causation, then, our mental models correspond with real world facts. There is no divide between them however passionately the skeptics might wish it to be so.
Among reason’s most pragmatic judges, the Law of Causality and the Principle of Sufficient Reason define the rational standards for all philosophical and scientific investigations. Everything must have a reason or cause for its existence and an explanation for why it undergoes change. Let’s consider a simple example of the former: Person A enters a room with person B and says, “Look, there is a red ball sitting on the table. I wonder how it got there.” Person B, amazed at the question, asks, “What do you mean, ‘how did it get there?’ Obviously, someone put it there.” This is, of course, the correct response. The red ball is, after all, contingent and finite; someone had to bring it into existence and put it in place. Now, let’s blow the ball up to the size of a house. Has the argument changed or lost any of its force? No. The only thing that has changed is the size of the ball. Now, blow the ball up to the size of the United States—now to the size of our Solar system—now to the size of the universe. Has the argument changed? No. Is the ball any less finite or less dependent on a cause? No. Only its size is different. Obviously, someone put it there.
Again, the careful reader will notice that the Law of Causality applies not only to those things that come into being but also those things that undergo change. In the latter context, the principle can be further simplified: A cause cannot give what it does not have to give. There is no reason, for example, to conduct an empirical investigation to negate or affirm the hypothesis that a gold bar could come from a gold sliver, or that a sand castle could come from a single grain. In either case, there is nothing in the cause that could produce the effect. Additional raw materials would have to be gathered by an outside agent and fashioned into a new product. No amount of evidence could override these metaphysical truths.
It often escapes the notice of professional cynics that reason’s rules also establish the rigorous standards for scientific methodology even before evidence enters the picture. Among the many questions which must be answered are the following: What is the difference between causation and correlation? When is it appropriate to use ordinal, nominal, or interval measurements? What is the most dependable way to isolate variables? Can variables be totally isolated at all? When should we apply mathematical principles? When should we apply statistical principles? What is science? What counts as evidence? What is an experiment? What is a theory? What constitutes a proof? What is the difference between probability, virtual certainty, and absolute certainty? In what ways does a philosophical investigation differ from a scientific investigation? Do they overlap? We cannot interpret evidence in a rational way until we answer these and many other questions.
Objective rational standards are, for want of a better term, epistemological safeguards. Under their jurisdiction, all parties must check their political motives and personal agendas at the door: Religious believers will not presume to use the book of Genesis as a scientific textbook, and secular doubters will not presume to disallow a “Divine foot in the door.” The role of scientists, after all, is to sit at the feet of nature and allow her to reveal her secrets. In that context, there is always an ethical component involved in their research: Either they will follow the evidence according to reason’s rules, or they will lead the evidence according to their own biases and prejudices. There is no middle ground for interpretation. One is either drawing information out of the data or injecting ideology into the data.
In this respect, the micro world is subject to the same metaphysical principles as the macro world. Quantum theorists, therefore, cannot reasonably challenge first principles on the grounds that quantum particles behave in strange and surprising ways. It was, after all, those same principles that brought attention to the strange and surprising behavior in the first place. In the absence of reason’s rules, we could not have known the difference between what is odd and what is normal or apprehend the counter-intuitive nature of quantum activity. Any scientist who presumes to negotiate away reason’s rules is, in effect, trying to put out of business the same principles that put him in business.
Meanwhile, the big questions remained unanswered. If one thing can come into existence without a cause, why cannot anything else do the same? Why not everything? Within such a “liberated” framework, how can the scientist know which events are caused and which ones are not? In any case, it appears that the special pleading of the quantum theorists has ended. At first, we were told that their claim on behalf of causeless events was a one-time deal. If, just this once, we would exempt their specialty from rational standards, there would be no more breaches—that is, until Lawrence Krauss exclaimed that the entire universe popped into existence without a cause. So much for special limits. But the development was entirely predictable. Irrationality knows no limits. That is why it is irrational.
That raises the prior question about why anyone in any specialty would question reason’s rules. In large part, the answer lies with members of the educational elite and their desire to take reason’s place as the final arbiter of right thinking. If reason has no rules, then power does the ruling. In order to facilitate that strategy, elitists promote the anti-intellectual doctrine that only empirical knowledge is real knowledge. If a concept or idea cannot be verified thought scientific means, then it doesn’t qualify as legitimate knowledge. Obviously, that philosophy refutes itself since it cannot pass its own test. It cannot be proven to be valid through empirical methods.
Wouldn’t it be easier to dispense with all this nonsense and simply acknowledge self-evident truths for what they are? What could be more reasonable than affirming with confidence that which we already know? It isn’t just the integrity of science that is at stake. Our ability to engage in any kind of rational discourse depends on it. Every long journey begins with a single step. Surely, we can all agree that there could never be more people in the city of Los Angeles than in the state of California without adding the words, —“yes, but”….” Or can we?