Canonics – How Can I Be Confident In What I Think I Know To Be True?
It is only by firmly grasping a well-reasoned scientific study of Nature, and observing Epicurus’ Canon of Truth that has fallen, as it were, from heaven, which affords us a knowledge of the universe. Only by making that Canon the test of all our judgments can we always hope to stand fast in our convictions, undeterred and unshaken by the eloquence of any man.
– Cicero, “On The Ends of Good and Evil”
As with us today, the ancient Epicureans lived in a world where even men who were not blinded by religious zeal had been persuaded by philosophers such as Plato that their senses were not a reliable source of knowledge on how men should live. In the place of religious revelation, the reigning philosophers had erected their own edifice – abstract reasoning alone – as the only reliable method for determining truth. Epicurus saw the error in both alternatives. As recorded by Cicero, Epicurus trained his philosophical guns on the error of his most powerful enemies, the followers of Plato:
Theoretical logic, on which [the] Platonic school lays such stress, Epicurus held to be of no assistance either as a guide to conduct or as an aid to thought. In contrast, he deemed Natural Philosophy to be all-important. Natural Philosophy explains to us the meaning of terms, the nature of cause and effect, and the laws of consistency and contradiction.
Epicurus emphasized Natural Philosophy rather than reason because speculation – no matter how “reasonable” – is worthless if not based on real and true evidence. The results of reasoning will necessarily be false if the evidence on which that reasoning is based is itself false. Epicurus acknowledged the vital importance of reason throughout his work, but he emphasized that it was necessarily a secondary tool. Because reason relies for its accuracy on the information obtained through the senses, reason alone can never be used to contradict a fact that has been established by the senses to be true.
In addition to establishing that reason is an essential tool to use in support of the senses, but never in contradiction to them, Epicurus also observed that Nature demands that men rely on their senses if they wish to live. If a man does not use his sense of eyesight to see a cliff in his path, and then turn to avoid it, his life comes to a quick end. Epicurus therefore observed that regardless of the quibbles of those who attack the senses, all men do use the senses successfully – every day – to obtain the knowledge that is necessary to sustain their lives. Thus all men, regardless of their vain opinions to the contrary, rely on the fact that the senses are up to the task of providing the information that is necessary to life.
Epicurus then turned his attention to the question of obtaining knowledge beyond the minimum amount necessary to avoid falling off cliffs and otherwise sustaining our lives. Looking again to Nature for guidance, Epicurus observed that all desires, including the desire for knowledge, can be divided into three categories: (1) those desires that are natural and necessary for life, (2) those desires that are natural but not necessary for life, and (3) those desires which are neither natural nor necessary for life.
Epicurus observed that Nature has established that those desires which are both natural and necessary for life, such as air, food, water, and basic clothing and shelter, are relatively easy to obtain. In a similar way, those desires which are natural, but not necessary, such as the desire for luxuries such as more refined food, shelter, and clothing, are not quite so easy to fulfill, but may still be obtained by exerting a reasonable degree of effort. On the other hand, Nature has established that those desires that are neither natural nor necessary, such as political power or great riches, are difficult or impossible to obtain or keep.
Epicurus then applied these three categories to determine the proper attitude to take toward the desire for knowledge:
The knowledge that is natural and necessary for life, such as that which is required to sustain one’s life by avoiding cliffs, is easy to obtain by simply opening one’s eyes and observing what is before of us to be seen.
The knowledge that is natural but not necessary for life, such as that which is required to improve one’s living conditions through agriculture and the applied sciences, is also readily available given reasonable mental effort. It may not be necessary for us to learn the knowledge necessary to sleep on a soft bed rather than on the hard ground, but the desire to do so is natural, and Nature provides that knowledge to obtain this luxury is readily available if we apply our minds appropriately.
But knowledge that is neither natural nor necessary for life, such as the desire that some men have to know all the facts of an infinite universe – knowledge clearly beyond the ability of any single man to know – is impossible to obtain. No man in any age has the ability to comprehend the movement of all the stars and the planets in boundless space, or the events of infinite past or future time, so therefore it makes no sense to concern oneself unduly about them. In regard to such things that Nature has established to have no practical relationship to our lives and to be clearly beyond the limits of our reach, Epicurus held that “It is not good to desire what is impossible.”
Let us now examine a number of the ancient texts to see how Epicurus devoted much attention to the method by which men may expand their knowledge beyond those things that are immediately evident. To restate what we saw earlier, Epicurus dismissed the methods advanced by both the Platonists (abstract reasoning) and the religionists (divine revelation). Epicurus held that because reasoning is fully dependent on the senses, the evidence that is before our eyes can never be deprecated in favor of opinions asserted by any other method. Nature requires us to start with the evidence that is before our eyes, which we possess the means to determine clearly, and then proceed from there. Once concepts are formed from facts which are close at hand and for which the evidence is clear are established with certainty, we are equipped to apply those concepts to any new evidence which our faculties allow us to obtain, and thereby expand the limits of the view that we can determine clearly.
The critical requirement is that we must apply the laws of consistency and contradiction and never accept any conclusion that would contradict some matter that has already been established with certainty. This necessarily follows from the observation that reason is dependent on the validity of the information established by the faculties. The process of examining those things which are close at hand is the process of studying Nature, which Epicurus referred to as the study of Natural Philosophy. In the words Cicero recorded in the following passage, Epicurus held that the study of Nature could go nowhere if the senses cannot be trusted to provide reliable information:
… [W]ithout a firm understanding of the world of Nature, it is impossible to maintain the validity of the perceptions [which we reach based on] our senses. Every mental presentation has its origin in sensation, and no knowledge or perception is possible unless the sensations are reliable, as the theory of Epicurus teaches us that they are. Those who deny the reliability of sensation and say that nothing can be known, by excluding the evidence of the senses, are unable even to make their own argument. By abolishing knowledge and science, they abolish all possibility of rational life and action. In contrast, Natural Philosophy supplies courage to face the fear of death, and resolution to resist the terrors of religion. Natural Philosophy provides peace of mind by removing all ignorance of the mysteries of Nature, and provides self-control, by explaining the nature of the desires and allowing us to distinguish their different kinds. In addition, the Canon or Criterion of Knowledge which Epicurus established shows us the method by which we evaluate the evidence of the senses and discern truth from falsehood.
Lucretius records for us Epicurus’ scorn for the folly of those who argue that knowledge is impossible, and his emphasis on trusting the senses, as follows:
[I]f a man contends that nothing can be known, he knows not whether this contention itself can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. I will therefore decline to argue the question against him who places his head where his feet should be. And yet granting that this man knows his contention to be true, I would still ask this question: Since he has never yet seen any truth in any thing, how does he know what “knowing” and “not knowing” are? What has produced his knowledge of the difference between the true and the false, and between the doubtful and the certain?
You will find that all knowledge of the true comes from the senses, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For anything which on its own can distinguish that which is false from that which is true must by nature possess a higher certainty than the thing which it judges.
Well, then, what can fairly be accounted of higher certainty than the senses? Shall reasoning alone be able to contradict the sensations? No, not when reasoning is itself wholly reliant on the senses for its accuracy. If the evidence of the senses is not true, then all reasoning based on that evidence is rendered false. Are the ears able to take the eyes to task, or the sense of touch take the ears to task? Shall the sense of taste or smell or vision call into question the sense of touch? No, for each sense has its own separate and distinct office and power. … It therefore follows that no sense can refute any other. Nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to the evidence it produces at all times. What has at any time appeared true to each sense must be taken as a true sensation.
At times you may experience sensations which your reason is unable to explain – for example, why a tower close at hand is seen to be square, but when seen at a distance appears round. In such cases it is better, if you are at a loss for a reason to explain this, to admit that you do not know the truth of the matter, rather than to accept an explanation that makes no sense. If you accept as true a possibility that contradicts your senses, you have set the stage to let slip from your grasp all those other things which you know to be manifestly true. In so doing you will ruin the groundwork of all your beliefs, and wrench up all the foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reason give way, but life itself would fall to the ground, unless you pursue the truth and choose to trust the senses, shunning the steep cliffs of life that must be avoided. All that host of words drawn out in array against the senses is quite without meaning.
If, in the construction of a building, the measuring stick first applied by the builder is crooked, or his square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, or if there is the slightest hitch in any part of his level, all the construction will turn out to be faulty, crooked, sloping, leaning forward or backward, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, and others do fall, all ruined by the first erroneous measurements. So too, all reasoning of things which is not founded on the senses will prove to be distorted and false.[i]
As Lucretius observed, the student of Nature must be prepared to defeat the arguments of those (such as the followers of Plato or religion) who assert that no knowledge is possible except through their special insights. The key to disarming such arguments is to remember that whether they are alleged to be based on “abstract reason” or “divine revelation”, such arguments refute themselves – the person who makes them in fact relies on the senses to speak, hear, and conduct the argument. This is the likely meaning of Lucretius’ observation that such men “put their head where their feet should be.” When one is in doubt whether a tower is square or round, the answer is not found in abstract logical formulas or in divine revelation, but in using one’s feet to walk toward the tower and find out the fact by seeing for oneself.
Before we proceed further, it is important to provide additional background on the faculties based on the work of Norman W. DeWitt, twentieth-century authority on Epicurus and author of the book “Epicurus and His Philosophy.” The three categories of faculties may be described as follows:
The first category is “the five senses” – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Through this faculty, men gather evidence about specific aspects of their surroundings.
The second category is the “pleasure-pain mechanism,” sometimes referred to as “the passions.” Through this faculty, Nature provides men evidence of what is for them good and bad, or pleasing and displeasing, in the sense that men find that fire is hot, and honey is sweet.
The third category is the “Anticipations,” also referred to as “Preconceptions.” Through this faculty, Nature has endowed men with the power to form and use concepts. Just as the pain/pleasure mechanism evaluates certain aspects of nature, the Anticipations are essentially an intuition or disposition to form concepts in a particular manner. This intuition is referred to as a “pre-conception” because it exists prior to any experience with examples of the matter being observed. An example of an anticipation is the general idea that most men have of “justice.”
Each of these three faculties has been established by Nature as a direct means of obtaining evidence about reality. These faculties provide only the means, however, and not evaluation of the content; the evidence provided in any single sensation may not represent a full or accurate picture of the object being observed. All evidence received through the faculties must be processed by the mind, which must consider any limitations under which the evidence was obtained. Each faculty faithfully reports to the mind what it observes, without any evaluation of the information, so the faculties by nature cannot misinterpret what they receive. But all evidence must be interpreted by the mind, and the mind is very definitely subject to error if it fails to process the information correctly.
Stated in simple terms, Epicurus held that the mind operates by taking the information provided by the faculties, establishing it to be true through multiple observations, and then organizing that information into concepts, which are then used as a standard against which to process new information as it is received. This operation can fail for a number of reasons, such as when we fail to consider any limitations in what was observed or when we fail to account for any distortions that might have intervened between the object and ourselves. In such cases we make mistakes because our mind is operating on evaluations that we believe to be accurate, but which are not, and we jump to an incorrect conclusion based on some prior experience or disposition toward a particular result. In the words of Lucretius:
Many are the marvels … we see which seek to shake the credit of the senses. But such efforts are quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases deceive us on account of the opinions which we add ourselves, taking things as seen which have not been seen by the senses. For nothing is harder than to separate those facts that are clearly true from those that are doubtful which the mind adds itself.
In all cases, it is the task of the mind is to verify that the evidence we received has in fact provided us with a “clear view” of the object being observed. Our best method of confirming this is to obtain multiple consistent reports through as many of the three basic faculties as possible, and even to compare those observations with those made by other men, if possible. Only when we have a clear view of the matter at hand is the mind justified in concluding that it has sufficient evidence to grasp what is true, and to conclude that it has reached an accurate determination on a matter – in other words, what may be described as a clear view.
Until we work to place ourselves in position to grasp that clear view, we are vulnerable to making a mistake by misinterpreting the evidence. Classic examples of this are when we see a square tower at a distance that appears to be round, or when we see a straight stick partially submerged in water that appears to be bent. Under these conditions, the distance and the water distort the image. If our minds do not compensate, we may jump to the incorrect conclusion that the tower is in fact round and the stick is in fact bent. Nature provides us the means to correct these errors by walking toward the tower for a closer view, and by removing the stick from the water and looking at it again. Only by taking action to obtain a clear view can we be sure that we have sufficient evidence to reach an accurate conclusion.
With this as background, we turn to Diogenes Laertius, who recorded the following:
In regard to the five senses, [Epicurus states] that the senses themselves are devoid of reason, and they are not capable of receiving any impressions from memory. For they are not by themselves the cause of any impression, and when they have received any impression from any external cause, they can add nothing to it, nor can they subtract anything from it. Moreover, they are not within the control of the other senses; for one sense cannot judge another, as all observations have an equal value, and their objects are not identical. In other words, one sensation cannot control another, since the effects of all of them influence us equally. Also, reason by itself cannot pronounce judgment on the senses; for… all reasoning rests on the senses for its foundation. Reality and the evidence provided by the senses establish the certainty of our faculties; for the impressions of sight and hearing are just as real, just as evident, as pain.
It follows from these considerations that we should judge those things which are obscure by their analogy to those things which we perceive directly. In fact, every notion proceeds from the evidence provided by the senses, either directly, or as a result of some analogy, or proportion, or combination to that which we do perceive directly, reasoning always participating in these operations. ….
In regard to the preconceptions, Epicurus meant a sort of comprehension, or right opinion, or notion, or general idea which exists within us. In other words, a preconception is a kind of mental recollection of an external object that we experience before we perceive it. For instance, one example is the idea: “Man is a being of such and such Nature.” At the same moment that we utter the word man, we conceive the figure of a man, in virtue of a preconception which we owe to the preceding operations of the senses. [An anticipation is] therefore the first notion which each word awakens within us …. In fact, we could not seek for anything if we did not previously have some notion about it. To enable us to affirm that what we see at a distance is a horse or an ox, we must have some preconception in our minds which makes us acquainted with the form of a horse and an ox. We could not even give names to things, if we did not have a preliminary notion of what the things were.
These preconceptions then furnish us with certainty. And with respect to judgments, their certainty depends on our referring them to some previous notion which has already been established to be certain. This is how we affirm or judge the answer to any question; for instance, “How do we know whether this thing is a man?”
Here we must return to DeWitt’s framework for several important clarifications:
First, in regard to the senses, it is necessary to pay careful attention to what is meant by observing that “all sensations are true.” The senses report to the mind exactly what they observe, and the senses do not lie. The senses neither add to nor subtract from the information that they receive, but neither do they reason, evaluate, or process that information – they are true witnesses to what they observe.
But just as may occur in a courtroom, a witness may be telling the truth but nevertheless not know the accurate or the entire story. As with all testimony, the mind must act as judge and jury, evaluating whether the evidence the sensation is providing is a complete and accurate picture of the object being observed. If we do not adequately consider any limiting or distorting conditions under which the sensation may have been received, our minds are apt to misinterpret that sensation. When the eyes see a tower at a distance, it is the mind that must compensate for the distance as it perceives whether the object is round, square, or indeed whether it is a tower at all.
On this point, Epicurus’ detractors allege that he held that all senses are “true to reality” and provide us “infallible” information about the object being observed. By this they mean us to believe that Epicurus was obtuse enough to believe that if he held a stick in water and it appeared to be bent, then it must in reality be bent. This contention is (1) absurd, and (2) completely contradicted by the observation that Epicurus composed a book on the subject of analyzing the sensations – a book that would have been completely unnecessary if he had really held that the information the senses provide is complete and infallible. The truth is that Epicurus held that each sensation must be evaluated and compared to what has already been established to be true before the mind can reach a judgment about what the sensation is observing.
Second, in regard to the pain/pleasure mechanism, Epicurus held that Nature is the ultimate guide of conduct. The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is not an overriding motive that supersedes all else, but one among many secondary sources of information – albeit an important one. The focus always remains, however, on the primary requirement – that Nature be obeyed in all things.
Epicurus’ enemies reverse this priority and allege that he taught “sensualism” and sought immediate physical pleasure over all other considerations. This is the opposite of the truth. With pleasure as with all things, Epicurus’ method of analysis was to start with the evidence before our eyes and follow that evidence to its conclusion. Here, the evidence is that Nature has endowed all men with the pain/pleasure mechanism, which serves as a guide to assist us in determining what is desirable. But pleasure and pain are only guides. Nature, which is at the center of all things, frequently requires men to forsake that guide, and to avoid pleasure and choose pain. Nature’s ultimate goal (“the highest goal toward which we all are aiming”) is not momentary physical pleasure, but a healthy mind and a healthy body living a life of happiness in accord with Nature. The problem here is that some men simply can not or will not accept that Nature has established the pursuit of individual happiness as the guide of life. Such men insist on “virtue” or “the will of god” or “the good of others” or some other standard of their own rather than the standard provided by Nature. In this matter as in all things, Epicurus refused to place any consideration above that of Nature.
Third, in regard to the “Anticipations,” it must be observed that Epicurus was not simply referring here to the concepts that men form by reflecting on the things that they have seen, touched, or otherwise already experienced. The name “pre-conception” is given to this faculty because Epicurus held it to be a predisposition, or intuition, toward forming conceptual knowledge in a manner pre-programmed by Nature. In this way the Anticipations are analogous to the five senses, or to the pleasure/pain mechanism, in that each of these three faculties is tuned by Nature to operate in a particular way. The reasoning mind forms and applies concepts based on the evidence input from each of the three faculties. The input from the Anticipations are intuitions in the field of abstract ideas that influence the conceptions that we form.
In addition to the previously-mentioned sense of “justice,” Epicurus held that the existence of perfect and eternal superior beings – gods – was also an anticipation provided by nature. Epicurus stated emphatically that he was not an atheist, and his belief in gods as perfect – and therefore unconcerned and uninvolved with earthly matters – rested on this idea being established by Nature as an “Anticipation.” It was in this sense that Epicurus wrote in his letter to Menoeceus that the superstitions of the common people about the gods were “not true anticipations.” In contrast, Epicurus recorded in the first of his Crucial Doctrines a correct anticipation:
That which is happy and imperishable neither has trouble itself, nor does it cause trouble to anything else. It is not subject to feelings either of anger or gratitude, for these feelings only exist in that which is weak.
Now that we have established the five senses, the pain/pleasure mechanism, and the Anticipations as the three fundamental faculties through which all knowledge is gained, we next turn to this important question: How does the mind process the information provided by these three faculties and determine from them whether an opinion is true or false?On this subject Diogenes Laertius recorded the following:
The Epicureans refer to ‘opinion’ as supposition, and say that it is at times true, and at times false. An opinion which is supported by evidence, and is not contradicted by other evidence is true. An opinion which is not supported by evidence, and is contradicted by other evidence, is false. On this account they have introduced the expression of “waiting,” such as when, before pronouncing that a thing seen is a tower, we must wait until we approach it, and learn what it looks like when we are nearby.
From this we see that Epicurus held that in order to determine whether an opinion is true we must verify the evidence provided by each faculty to determine if it provides an accurate picture of the thing being observed. The mind accomplishes this by first starting with the evidence that is nearby, and for which it has a clear view, and forming an opinion, or concept that it judges to be true, of the matter being considered. The mind then takes each new sensation provided by any faculty and compares it against this conception that is known to be true based on prior evidence. If the conception is supported by the evidence, and not contradicted by the evidence, then the opinion is true. If the mind finds that new evidence contradicts the opinion, or that it has formed an opinion without any evidence to support it, then the opinion must be judged to be false. In this process, the mind must consider all sensations from all the faculties, without ignoring any, because as we have already discussed, all sensations are true reporters of what they observe. Not until the mind obtains a clear view, with clear evidence supporting the conclusion, and with all evidence that at first seemed contradictory reconciled with it, may the mind reach the conclusion that its opinion is true.
From this we see that the determination of truth is a process in which the observer must actively seek out, gather, and process the information that is obtainable. One should expect that very often this process will take time, and it is essential to recognize that until such time as a clear view is achieved – if ever – the observer must “wait” until he has gathered sufficient evidence. In the meantime, conflicting evidence requires that we classify the matter as uncertain, rather than true or false. In the example of perceiving whether a tower at a distance is square or round, the observer must not take a position on the tower’s shape until he approaches close enough to be certain. In regard to the stick partially submerged in water, the observer must wait until he removes the stick from the water before he can take the position that it is straight.
The point stressed here by Epicurus is that it is critically important to keep separate in our minds the distinction between what is true and what is false and what is uncertain. If we have gathered enough information to have a clear view, we must classify the matter as true or false. If we do not have sufficient information to have a clear view, we must classify the matter as uncertain. The failure to identify and keep these categories separate leads inevitably to confusion in all walks of life.
These principles from the Canon were enshrined in two of Epicurus’ Crucial Doctrines, which can be paraphrased as follows:
(24) You must not discard any evidence provided by a sense simply because it does not fit your prior conceptions, and you must always distinguish between those matters which are certain and those which are uncertain by keeping them separate. You must always do this so you can determine whether your conclusion goes beyond that which is justified by the actual evidence of the senses. You cannot be confident of your determination unless your conclusion is justified by actual, immediate, and clear evidence which comes from the senses, from the pain/pleasure mechanism, and from the conceptions of the mind which arise from the anticipations. If you fail to keep these distinctions in mind, you will be injecting error into the evaluation of the evidence provided by the senses, and you will destroy in that area of inquiry every means of distinguishing the true from the false.
(25) If you consider those ideas which are only an opinion, and must await further information before they can be verified, to be of equal authority with those ideas which bear about them an immediate certainty, you will not escape error. For if you do this you will be confusing doubtful opinions with those which are not doubtful, and true judgments with those of an uncertain character.
Thus we see that Epicurus taught that truth is determined in a particular matter by obtaining and evaluating any evidence available from the three faculties. Where we find that our opinion is confirmed by multiple observations of direct evidence, and no other evidence exists which contradicts that opinion, then we judge the opinion to be true. This process necessarily involves accounting for any limitations in the sensations or any distortions that may exist between us and the object being observed. Because all sensations truly report what they observe, we must never ignore the implications of any observation, or take any evidence out of context, or elevate the evidence of one sensation over contradictory evidence from another. When we fail to heed any evidence that contradicts our opinions from any faculty, or when we confuse what has been confirmed as true with what we should realize is only tentative, we are apt to go wrong. Before we reach firm conclusions we must wait until we have obtained a clear view that has been confirmed by direct evidence from our three faculties, and we must never allow any opinion that is not supported by evidence, or is contradicted by any evidence, to be considered true.
As we near the end of this discussion of Nature’s test of truth, we can recapitulate and summarize Epicurus’ view as follows:
Only the foolish take the position that no knowledge of anything is possible. Nature requires that we seek out and obtain knowledge if we wish to live at all, and especially if we wish to live happily. The scope of knowledge open to us is vast, and we must seek to expand it throughout our lives, but it is equally important to remember that it is not good to ask for that which is impossible. There are Natural limits to the amount of knowledge a single man can obtain, and although it is essential to happiness that we seek out and obtain all the knowledge that we can, we must keep a clear view of the limitations of nature. It is a major mistake to concern oneself with the pursuit of knowledge beyond that which nature allows us to obtain.
Epicurus held that the “Canon of Truth” is the three faculties that Nature provides through which we obtain knowledge of reality. These three faculties are: the Five Senses, the Passions, and the Anticipations.
The five senses are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting.
The passions are the feelings of pleasure and pain.
The anticipations are intuitive natural dispositions that Nature provides to assist us in the formation of abstract concepts.
The three faculties are reliable because they are true witnesses, and they report just what they observe. They neither add to nor subtract from the information they receive.
None of the three faculties can contradict the other, because they all rule supreme within their own area of expertise. Sensations from one faculty cannot invalidate sensations from another faculty, nor can different sensations from the same faculty invalidate each other. All information received through the faculties must be considered and reconciled in order to gain a clear view of the matter being observed and to separate the true from the false.
It is the role of the mind to take the evidence provided by the three faculties and process it properly. The mind does not operate automatically, however, and error can occur in the process of evaluating the evidence. The key to avoiding error is to obtain a clear view of the matter being considered before reaching a conclusion.
Until such time as we have obtained a clear view of a matter, we must “wait” before we reach a conclusion about it. When we do not have a clear view, we must firmly identify the matter as uncertain, and wait until we are able to obtain further evidence before taking a position on the truth of the matter.
At all times we must keep separate in our minds those things which we know to be true or false from those things which are uncertain. If we confuse together those things that are certain with those things that are uncertain, we will lose grasp of the method by which we know anything to be true. Not only will we become hopelessly confused, we will then have no means to separate the true from the false.
In order to arrive at truth in any new matter we must always start with those things for which we already have a clear view. We must then reason by analogy, by proportion, and by similar methods to compare the evidence about those things that are uncertain with those things that we do know to be true. Starting with those things that are directly before our eyes, we then apply that knowledge to those things which are distant or obscure, and in this way we expand the range of our clear view.
In those situations where we do not have a clear view of a matter, we must accept as possible any alternative which can be squared with the evidence that we do know to be true. We must not, however, accept any possibility which contradicts those things that we do know to be true, or allow ourselves to take inconsistent positions. When the facts support the possibility that any of several alternatives may be true, it is wrong to assert that we know which alternative is correct.
Abstract reasoning alone and by itself is not a reliable source of knowledge, nor does it rank higher or even equal in importance with the three faculties. This is because reason relies for its foundation on the accuracy of the sensations received from the three faculties. Truth comes by obtaining a clear view of the matter being observed, not by abstract reasoning.
Although reason is dependent on the three faculties, it is critically important that the mind employ reason to evaluate the evidence it obtains. The wise man will govern all important affairs of his life by reasoning based on the evidence provided by the three faculties.
As an example of the correct process of determining truth, the first and most basic observation which we can see with our own eyes and can verify through our other faculties is that nothing is ever created from nothing. We know this not because we reason it to be true, but because all of the evidence that we obtain from our faculties establishes that all things come from other things. Never do we see anything come from nothing.
Our second basic observation is that we also see that no thing is ever destroyed completely to nothing. Once again, we know this not because reason establishes it, but because our faculties establish for us from experience that nothing is ever destroyed completely to nothing.
From these first two observations, that nothing comes from nothing, and that nothing goes to nothing, our faculties provide all the proof we need to conclude that the universe as a whole has always existed. Those things that we see before our own eyes may constantly change, but they are never created from nothing by any god or by any supernatural force, nor are they ever completely destroyed. Some may argue that a reasonable case can be constructed that the universe was created by a supernatural god. But this is an example of the error that results from reasoning which is not based on evidence that our faculties can verify, and which contradicts existing evidence that we do know to be true. For all the evidence that we can observe establishes that no thing ever comes from nothing, and to accept for a moment that any thing ever came from nothing would be to accept something that contradicts all that we already know from our own experience to be true.
We also see that all of the universe is composed of a combination of things that exist and empty space, which we call matter and void. Our senses establish that all that we observe is composed of matter and void, and it is on these observations that our reason validates that nothing else exists but matter and void.
Because we have a clear view that matter is never created from nothing or totally destroyed, we reason by analogy that the fundamental material of the universe must consist of some type of indivisible particles which are themselves indestructible and possess unique properties that are eternal and unchanging.
All things, including living things such as men, are made up of this fundamental material of the universe. We can also observe that men and other living beings have free will, and can decide for themselves in what direction they wish to move. We thus conclude that the motion of the fundamental material of the universe is not fully controlled by laws of necessity that confine them to a necessary course. At least some of this fundamental material has the capacity to “swerve” from the course it otherwise would take.
From these basic observations, and others similar to them, we can derive truth about the nature of the universe, and gain confidence that our existence is governed by Natural Laws, rather than by any divine being whose whims can override the laws of Nature.
Nature has provided that the desires and the knowledge necessary to live our lives is easy to obtain, and that the desires and the knowledge men naturally seek are also readily attainable by our efforts. But Nature has also provided that the desires which are vain and idle, including the desires for knowledge beyond that which is natural are difficult or impossible to obtain or possess. For these arrangements we should be thankful to Nature, for if we follow Nature’s laws and live our lives wisely, honorably, and justly, happiness will follow.
[i] DRN IV