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Dynamic Faith in Pancritical Rationalism

Lincoln Cannon

Ethical Technology

March 15, 2012

We have faith, even the most atheist among us. Our faith is not necessarily explicit or associated with “God”, and hopefully it’s not irrational or dogmatic. Yet we must trust, and we do trust, to the extent that we act, speak or even think. In the least, we trust in the possibility of meaning, even if it’s no more than something like a hope for or will toward a primitive connectivity or a basic cooperation within experience.

In the comments on an H+ Magazine article on “Why Christianity and Transhumanism are not Enemies”, philosopher Max More disagreed with my assessment of faith. Here’s the exchange, including an opening comment from someone named “Ben”.

Ben: “Christianity is based on FAITH. Transhumanism is based on SCIENCE. What more is there to say?”

Lincoln: “Science also depends on trust in non-contradiction, spatial and temporal uniformity, causality, etc. Faith is inescapable, but we don’t need to be irrational.”

Max: “No, that’s just not true. That’s a common argument, and understandable enough. But you should read Karl Popper and William Warren Bartley. Pancritical rationalism shows why NOTHING need be taken on faith. I summarize this line of thinking here:”

I responded to Max that I want to press him on this further, and this essay is aimed at that end. Before I proceed, though, I want to say a few things about Max. I had the opportunity to meet and interact extensively with Max during the Transhumanism and Spirituality Conference 2010 organized by the Mormon Transhumanist Association in Salt Lake City. The experience was a pleasure. His speech at the conference was excellent, side discussions with him were intriguing, and on a personal level I found him to be engaging and friendly. My respect is particularly high for his broad contributions to and influence on Transhumanist thought.

At the beginning of his article on Pancritical Rationalism, Max appeals to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as an example of ideologies that would negate faith:

“Superficially and officially Objectivism opposed blind faith, dogma, unquestioned authority, and unexamined assumptions (‘check your premises!’). Independence and rationality were core virtues; those who could not or would not think critically for themselves were branded as second-handers, mystics, or Witch-doctors.”

Max’s use of the expression “blind faith” probably reveals the source of our disagreement. When I use “faith”, I don’t mean blind trust. I mean only trust, with no more blindness than necessary at a given time and place. I also don’t mean dogma or any unquestioning or unexamining attitude. Rather, I mean that no matter how many questions we ask, and no matter how much we examine and press the frontiers of our knowledge, there are more questions to ask, and there are more matters to examine, and that may always be the case. So, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves in a context that requires faith in practice. Life and death hang in the balance, and we cannot wait for absolute answers (even if they exist) before we act.

Even when we have the luxury of time, we cannot make progress without at least tentatively agreeing on basic premises. Science typically posits causality and uniformity as basic premises. Some will argue that these are proven by science, but that’s not true, as the empiricist philosophers, Hume and Berkeley, taught us. No matter how many times we think we’ve experienced something, no matter how many places we think we’ve experienced it, it could change at another time or place. Well, some may respond, at least we have probabilities? Strictly speaking, no, we don’t even have probabilities. Probabilities are derived from memories. Can we demonstrate that erroneous memories were not fabricated in our minds moments ago by an evil demon? A matrix architect? No. We cannot, but we don’t worry much about that because it’s not practical, or at least so we judge based on our memories, even if that’s circular reasoning.

The same is true of logic. We require some basic axioms and methods, taken unproven, in order to do any work at all. For example, most logical systems assume non-contradiction, and various operations for coupling, decoupling, and otherwise operating on propositions. Logic doesn’t prove these axioms and methods. They are assumed, which is an act of faith, as I’m using the word.

Max proceeds to note that Rand and others failed to live up to the promise of Objectivism, instead becoming “true believers dogmatists suffering from a hardening of the orthodoxies”. He attributes their failure to claims (or at least attitudes) of completeness and closure. They chose some assumptions, considered them sufficient and final, and proceeded dogmatically from there, without going back to question and improve their initial assumptions.

Intending to provide a better example of ideologies that would negate faith, Max contrasts Objectivism with his own Extropianism:

“Extropians affrim reason, critical inquiry, intellectual independence, and honesty. We reject blind faith and the passive, comfortable thinking that leads to dogma, mysticism, and conformity ... Extropians therefore feel proud by readily learning from error rather than by professing infallibility ... We choose challenge over comfort, innovation over emulation, transformation over torpor.”

Max calls this systematic openness a “pancritical rationalism” or “epistemological fallibilism”, to which I respond with support, so long as it is approached practically. We should re-examine our premises, assumptions and conformities. We should seek out and acknowledge our limitations. We should engage in and welcome criticism. All of this, over time, strengthens our knowledge, much like the brutal hardships of nature have shaped our anatomies through billions of years of evolution. However, there are practical limits, and perhaps no philosophical movement has better addressed these limits than the Pragmatist school. As William James once described it, you can wait for a long time for hard evidence that a woman loves you, or you can make a move. You can stand in front of a charging bull calculating the probability that it will trip, or you can run. You can wait for more evidence that anthropogenic global warming will harm our civilization, or you can begin cleaning up your act. Furthermore, because you are limited, and because you will always be limited, you will always find yourself dependent on this faith, this trust in the knowledge at hand at any given time, according to whatever education or experience you were lucky to have had (or at least presume yourself to have had) prior to needing it.

Beyond the practical necessity, there may even be a creative power in faith. If the universe (or the multiverse) is not finite, if real creativity and genuine novelty are possible, it will not be those who wait for evidence that will be the creators. It will be those who act, despite not knowing everything in advance. We might imagine this faith at its creative zenith in the power of Gods creating (or computing) new worlds, but we need not look so far. The creative power of trust may be seen even in matters as common as love. As we exercise trust in each other, and as the strength of that trust grows, we gain love for each other, and this love in turn moves us to do that which we would not otherwise do, changing our relations and world. Don’t underestimate the creative power of love!

Of course, we should examine and reexamine. We should question and learn more, of course. Yet there are still practical limitations. Should we randomly test hypotheses of how best to terminate our relations? Should we test hypotheses of how best to annihilate the Earth? Perhaps there are some detached and indirect, relatively non-consequential, ways to test these hypotheses, such as through simulations. However, our faith shapes the approaches we take to criticism and examination. We don’t proceed arbitrarily or indiscriminately.

Max mentioned in his original comment to me that I should take a look at Karl Popper, and at the beginning of his article’s section on “Rationalism and Justificationalism”, Max quotes Popper while expounding on the value of criticism:

“We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’.”

I support this attitude, and perhaps ironically, I view it as an expression of faith! Acknowledging limitations is trust that those limitations can be overcome. I don’t start with evidence of that, and even after much learning I don’t have evidence that all of my limitations can be overcome. The effort to continue, to remain open, to question and seek answers, is itself an expression of faith. Certainly, it’s not the blind unquestioning faith against which Max and Karl would warn us. Yet it is still faith of the anticipatory sort.

Max next expounds on some of the matters I mention above, digging into the complexities of competing premises, deductive and inductive limitations, sensory limitations, and the necessity of practical action in life. Clearly, nothing I’ve written above is news to Max, except perhaps my perspective on “faith”. Now, he might argue that my use of “faith” is so unusual that it should be considered a complete redefinition. I understand why he or others unfamiliar with my religious background would think that, and perhaps there’s some truth there. However, this is the definition and usage of “faith” that I learned as a child, particularly in Mormon settings, and it’s the meaning that continues to resonate with me as I study religious texts as an adult. I’d even argue that the irrational or blind sorts of faith employed by so many religious persons, particularly Christian fundamentalists, are not faith at all. As the Bible puts it, faith without works is dead. As the Book of Mormon describes it, knowledge results after exercising faith. As Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism taught it, faith is a principle of action and power.

Of course, this presents some concerns, and Max expresses them. If we must all act in faith, from premises that are themselves unproven, “why not accept as your standard the proclamations of the Pope, or the urgings of your feelings, or the will of the people, or the assertions of der Füehrer?” The problem goes even deeper. Why care at all? In my late teenage years, I encountered such a crisis. I recognized my limitations. I found no grounds for choosing one direction or another. I felt the weight of meaninglessness pressing on me. It may sound melodramatic now, but it was quite serious for me at the time. Many others have passed through such experiences, and probably most have found one way or another to get out of the funk without killing themselves. I don’t know how everyone has done it, but I know what worked for me, and embracing faith, not of the dogmatic irrational sort but rather of a dynamic arational sort, was essential.

Where did I direct my faith and why? The answer is complex, and I’ll provide only a brief explanation here. I began with what I could identify of my own basic wills and desires. I didn’t want meaninglessness, so I embraced the possibility of meaning, a hope for some primitive connectivity or a basic cooperation within experience, a will to knowledge. I also didn’t want meaning only for me, so I embraced the possibility of sharing meaning, abstracting across subjective experience to objective laws and existence, combining knowledge into rules and truth. I trusted in meaning and sharing, and I identified that as love: both for myself and my body, as well as for our relations and world. However, this trust was not blind. Connection, to whatever extent it attained, was clearly accompanied with observed and imagined tensions and conflicts. If individual wills, anatomical desires, communal rules and environmental laws would be connected, it would be through an ongoing perhaps unending exchange or reconciliation. I called this reconciliation “atonement” (intentionally alluding to the Biblical example of Jesus engaged in moral reconciliation), and I saw us all participating in this atonement in every aspect of our lives, perpetually. Science is the epistemic atonement: reconciling experience, knowledge, truth and existence. Politics is the ethic atonement: reconciling desire, will, rule and law. Art is the esthetic atonement. Each aspect of atonement affects the others and itself in feedback loops. To help visualize these ideas, check out my matrices.

In summary, I put my faith in love and atonement: trusting in a perpetual work of epistemic, ethic, and esthetic reconciliation. Accordingly, I don’t accept the proclamations of the Pope without considering the laws of biological evolution, I don’t follow my feelings without consulting friends and experts, I don’t embrace the will of the people without investigating the feelings of the individual, and the assertions of der Füehrer are only one, but still one, variable in an aggregate of tensions and conflicts between and among desires, wills, rules and laws.

Returning to Max’s article, he goes on to describe pancritical rationalism (PCR), which he considers to be a solution to the epistemic problem of relying on faith. First, he points out that PCR requires no authorities, either those of a communal sort (scientists or kings) or those of an anatomical sort (experience or intellect). Instead of authoritarian justification, PCR espouses unbounded criticism, even of its methods of criticism, holding nothing beyond criticism. The whole process, as Max characterizes it, becomes perpetually investigational rather than justificational. As I see it, PCR is a meta-epistemology, abstracting across the philosophical investigations and turmoils of the centuries, and observing what it is we’ve actually done to achieve epistemic progress, even if all the while we were doing it naturally and ignorantly.

A key point in Max’s explanation of PCR is the idea that even the practice of holding everything open to criticism should be held open to criticism, but he notes, “perhaps someone could produce an argument demonstrating that some of the critical standards necessarily used by a pancritical rationalist were not only unjustified but uncriticizable, that even the pancritical rationalist must accept something as uncriticizable if circular argument and infinite regress are to be avoided.” He then expresses doubt regarding the possibility that someone will come up with such an argument.

I’ll leave it to Max to tell me whether the following is such an argument: we cannot engage in PCR without faith in meaning itself, which is something shared: the love or trust in reconciliation that I describe above. Even if approached egotistically, within the mind of a single person, meaning is relational, shared between concepts, distinguished from a meaningless chaos even before they enter our conscious and volitional mind. Indeed, something of the beginnings of this faith in meaning or trust in reconciliation may be built into us by evolution, itself shaped according to the contours of the environment in which we find ourselves. Can we consistently doubt? Can we consistently deconstruct? As we devolve into flashes and noises, can we persist into the darkness? From darkness to nothing? From nothing to that toward which “nothing” points without pointing? This reminds me of my thoughts twenty years ago as I struggled with nihilism. Even criticism, it seems, must have direction. We must trust in meaning, according to whatever desires we may have for it. As we do, relations between the distinctions are formed, and order arises. The alternatives are some combination of suicide and the mental hospital, and whatever of darkness and its lack lies beneath that which has no bottom.

Max points out that, in practice, PCR does not necessitate perpetual deconstruction and paralyzing self-criticism. While our memories may have been implanted into us a few moments ago, we need not take the idea seriously, he says, although we should not rule out in principle the possibility. An adherent to PCR, Max argues, can still be convinced of positions without being dogmatic about them. This, however, is exactly the kind of faith that I advocate. We live and act, as best we can, without turning to dogmatism, either of the sort that permanently ignores possibilities or of the sort that permanently insists on them. Yet, we do this only because we care. What do you tell the person that doesn’t care? That doesn’t share in our common faith in meaning? That would sooner throw feces and squawk at you than reflect on his desires? I don’t know, but whole industries have grown around the effort to help them care, reflecting the fact that most of us do care, and that’s part of what makes meaning possible.

In conclusion, I trust (notice the faith) that Max can still teach me something here, not merely to respect him, but because of that respect, which facilitates a communication aimed at meaning. Let us, indeed, increase in knowledge, but let’s do it in a manner that promotes life, sustainable and genuine, compassionate and creative, rather than death and nihilism. Knowledge is not inherently good or evil. We can learn as much about the slide to hell as we can about the ladder to heaven. Yet only one of the two perpetuates our power to continue choosing between them. I trust in that.

Lincoln Cannon is a technologist and philosopher, and leading advocate of technological evolution and postsecular religion. He is a founder, board member, and former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He is a founder and advisor of the Christian Transhumanist Association. And he formulated the New God Argument, a logical argument for faith in God that is popular among religious Transhumanists.


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