Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Omniscient Knowledge: A Consequence of Mind-Body Duality

Posted by Jerry on April 7, 2007

It seems that the most fundamental motivator of philosophical inquiry and religious speculation is the problem of knowledge: how do we know, can we know, and how can we be sure that we know. Indeed, the fear of not being able to know undercuts much of religious and secular philosophy: since we are not omniscient beings, we can never arrive at any truths with certainty. This view not only casts an epistemological doubt on man’s rational faculty but also projects man as a weak, incompetent, frightful creature at the mercy of nature and unknown forces that he can never comprehend fully or accurately. [See this related post for an elaboration of how terms of perfection with regard to humans are couched.]

 

In replacement of man’s limited and weak epistemic tool (the mind), religion offers the epistemological method of knowledge via alleged revelation, faith, dogma, doctrine, and subjective, mystical experience. At the root of this method lies the dogmatic rejection of the human capacity to acquire true knowledge with reason and sense modalities. Religion begins fundamentally at the premise of rejecting man’s methods and tools of knowing, and replaces it with the premise of faith, i.e., holding belief without the need for, and even contrary to, evidence.

 

Much of philosophy–particularly and most explicitly, modern philosophy from the time of Descartes–has also exhibited this dogmatic mistrust of man’s capacity to have true knowledge. According to these philosophies, man’s existence (if at all acknowledged) was regarded as antagonistic to reality, that man was fundamentally at odds with and disconnected from nature. This view stemmed from a traditional and long-standing “problem” in philosophy known as the mind-body duality. According to this view, the mind was purely mental and belonged to a different realm of existence with absolutely no physical qualities, whereas the rest of nature–including the corporal human body–belonged to the realm of reality, and that both these realms were irreducible primaries and their exact nature of interaction was incomprehensible.

 

Philosophers like Hume and Kant enshrined this doctrine of dissection into their philosophies as a description of actual reality, of things-as-they-are.

 

Thus, the argument remained that since man is a thinking being whose mental state is ineffable, non-physical, and fundamentally different from anything else in the world, man is essentially removed from reality and can never perceive reality, or things-as-they-are, directly. All knowledge, these philosophies postulated, are either illusions, self-projected creations of the mind, or only things-as-they-appear.

 

In this manner, both religion and philosophy solidified the dogma of man’s incapacity to have true knowledge of the world.

 

To reject this dualism of the mind and the body, materialist and reductionist philosophers postulated that fundamentally there is no such thing as consciousness–that there is nothing irreducibly mental–and that all things can be explained by reduction to physical elements or processes. In the process, these philosophers did not reject the dissection of man into mind and body but indeed proceeded to split him in half and discard the other (mental) half away by insisting that it is illusory.

 

As philosopher John Searle points out, “One of the weirdest features of recent intellectual life was the idea that consciousness–in the literal sense of qualitative, subjective states and processes–was not important, that somehow it did not matter” (Mind: A Brief Introduction).

 

Despite this intellectual trend, in fact, materialism, and all its variations of reductionism, physicalism, behaviorism, and identity theory, is relatively easy to reject: fundamentally, in every denial of consciousness its very existence is necessarily presumed. There can be no discussion of theories without the presumption that a conscious mind is developing and grappling with the many theories of consciousness.

 

However, dualism–that the mental and the physical are different realms of existence–is more complex. How can man’s consciousness–his mental state–be aware of physical entities or have causal effects on the physical world? How is the gap between man’s mind and the physical world bridged?

 

In other words, according to dualism, man–by virtue of his mind–was irreparably separated from the physical world. Religion postulates faith and mystical experience as the epistemological tool to bridge this gap.

 

This alleged inability to have true knowledge conceded, and indeed propagated, by philosophers fueled religious belief; religionists self-righteously declared that man is limited in knowledge; he cannot know everything; this is his weakness; man’s wisdom is bounded; no matter how much man achieves in science and technology, his wisdom is worse than the foolishness of God. God is beyond man’s ability to comprehend because man cannot even comprehend his own world and the universe entirely.

 

Thus, both secular philosophies and religions were hand-in-glove in denouncing man’s mind, reason, and sense modalities in being able to perceive reality. In fact, as Rand aptly stated, these philosophies and religions declared that because man has eyes, he cannot see; because he has ears, he cannot hear.

 

When Rand said she was reversing centuries of bad philosophy, she was not overstating her case. At least tracing it back to Descartes, Searle says that “the philosophy of mind is unique… in that all of the most famous and influential theories [in the subject] are false” (Mind).

 

Rand’s unequivocal rejection of all forms of dualism and materialism was unprecedented in philosophy. In a most simplistic sense, Rand’s method was to honestly observe reality and describe it as accurately as possible, while ignoring all historical and philosophical precedents that made such honest descriptions of reality virtually impossible. She made her theories, her concepts, her vocabulary, fit reality; not the other way around.

 

Rand correctly pointed out that man is as natural–and constituent of this nature–as the rest of existence is; and that man and reality are not on antagonistic terms. Rand argued that man’s consciousness is as much a part of this reality as his body is, and his consciousness has developed from the same “stuff” of existence as the rest of nature did; and by virtue of this fact, man’s consciousness is in fact nature’s metaphysically given tool by which he perceives the external world.

 

Rand held that consciousness was certainly mental, individual, and personal, but that every mental aspect and process has a “physical and material component” (Sciabarra; Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) She viewed consciousness as a higher level description of lower level processes in the brain. “She argues that consciousness operates under conditions of materiality and sensuous corporeality” (The Russian Radical).

 

For Rand, the unity of mind and body implied that man’s mind was efficacious in action and competent in epistemological activity. Further, given the unity of man and nature, Rand realized that man’s sense modalities are developed naturally to be fully and sufficiently equipped to explore the external world. “Rand defends the validity of the senses as an axiomatic proposition, for our sense organs have no capacity to misrepresent the facts of reality” (The Russian Radical). Errors in representing reality, Rand pointed out, occur not at the sensory level and are not made by our sense organs but at the perceptual and cognitive level made by our epistemic processes.

 

This gave Rand even more reason to argue for the competency of man’s rational process in weeding out errors of perception, unlike faith which does not grant man this ability.

 

For example, a straight stick that appears bent in water is not an error of made by our visual senses, nor is it proof of an insurmountable chasm between things-as-they-are (a straight stick in the water) and things-as-they-appear-to-us (a bent stick in the water). According to Peikoff, “a perception is a product of both the sense organ and the [external] object” (The Russian Radical). Thus, the stick appears bent in water because it is the form in which the stick is perceived by our visual senses within and influenced by that particular context or environment (water).

 

Rand’s philosophical method reveals at least one more thing in addition to honest commitment to the facts of reality; it reveals a certain sense of pride in being human and knowing that as human beings we are efficacious and competent beings who can change this world for our benefit. This is reflected in Rand’s “benevolent universe” premise: that man and reality are not antagonistic, and that we are efficacious, productive beings who are fully equipped to live and flourish qua man and achieve happiness in this world–and most importantly, that we are worthy of all these things in this world.

 

Throughout history, when man was being condemned because he cannot “know everything,” Rand argued that “knowing everything” as a standard has to be unequivocally rejected as a worthlessly mystical notion inappropriate in and in violation of reality. With the rejection of the false premise that the mind and the body are two separate and distinct realms, Rand was also able to reject the notion of omniscient knowledge–that is, knowledge absolutely unbounded by metaphysical requirements, contexts, or necessities–as mystical, in contradiction with reality, and worthless in the context of man’s epistemic capacities.

 

When philosophers were dissecting man into various metaphysical categories and permanently divorcing him from the external world, Rand reinstated man’s rightful place as an integrated being of mind and body, spirit and flesh engaged in a wholly congruent relationship with the external world.

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