Sunday, September 02, 2007

On the valid distinction between reason and knowledge

It's a distinction that seems to go back to Plato v. Aristotle. Plato's Socrates, at least until he decided to beome a political philosopher, is all about the value of reasoning over knowledge. (Please note the distinction between the noun "reason" and the verb "reasoning." This is a rough draft; I don't have time to polish every edge as it deserves, so forgive the interpolations; but they will come.) Aristotle seems, in say, the Nicomachean Ethics or the Poetics or his works on science, to be all about knowledge: observation, facts, the way things are. But Aristotle is the father of logic, and logic is purely a system of reasoning. Logic will never yield a truth out of data; it will only tell you if your reasoning from that data is valid. So logic may tell you that if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal, but logic will only tell you that your reasoning is flawed if you start with all men being mortal, and determine Socrates, too, is mortal, therefore Socrates is a man. Socrates could, of course, be a cat. But logic will never establish that. Nor will it establish that Socrates exists. Hold on to that issue, we'll come back to it.

The Greeks, at least in the philosophies handed down to us and in surviving fragments and references in Aristotle, were not interested in knowledge: they were actually interest in reasoning. That's a blanket statement, but I mean to cover the foundations of what we know call Hellenistic thought, of what Whitehead was referring to when he said all Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato. Socrates, especially, eschewed knowledge. He flays Euthyphro so badly in what seems, for him, to be only casual conversation, that the priest abandons his court claim against his father for an act of impiety (murdering a slave) and leaves the stage clear for Socrates to present his Apology. Euthyphro clearly exceeds Socrates in knowledge of the subject of piety and religion; but Socrates bests Euthyphro in reasoning.

Nor is Socrates anymore interested in data procured by mathematics. For Socrates, knowledge of math is secondary; we all have it, we just need to recover it. Reasoning, in Socratic epistemology, is the road to recovering data. (This is also the road through which Socrates is praised, because his ironic stance is excused since the goal is deemed ultimately worthy. The fact is, as any reader of the Apology can tell you, and as Kierkegaard understood: Socrates only goal was the ironic one of destroying knowledge, not releasing it or even reclaiming it. But that's another point that doesn't necessarily undermine the one I want to make. I warned you there would be digressions.) But it is the reasoning that will set you free; the data is mere ephemera; it is knowledge about the shadows of the forms. Only reasoning can lead to understanding the impermanence of the forms, and even the forms themselves are but guides to the Good. So knowledge, ultimately, is only a stepping stone to the end and source of reason. Read Dante as an example of medieval thought, and be amazed at how thoroughly Platonic the "Dark Ages" were. In many ways, it would be a modern mathematician's dream world.

But I digress; again.

To bring this down to earth a moment, connect it to Harry Potter. Voldemort's "sin," his great evil, is the pursuit of knowledge. The only wizard in the series who knows more than Voldemort, and indeed who uses that lust for knowledge but blindness to reasoning (which is also wisdom) against him, his Dumbledore. Voldemort's pursuit of knowledge, of course, is aimed at gaining power. It is no accident that Dumbledore was also tempted by his knowledge to gain power, and use it much as Voldemort would. It is also no accident that Dumbledore inscribes on his sister's grave the words from a parable of Jesus: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." It is, after all, the death of his sister that convinces Dumbledore to never seek any position of power more potent than headmaster of Hogwarts. It is also her death that haunts him so it ultimately leads to his own. I wonder if Rowling had in mind the less familar version by Dominic Crossan: "You buried your treasure where you buried your heart." It certainly applies most pointedly to Albus Dumbledore.

So Rowling's universe does not praise knowledge, but it does praise reasoning. Hermione often supplies facts, data, information, knowledge: but it is the reasoning of Harry, of Ron, of Hermione, which always carries the day. It is especially the moral reasoning of Harry which ultimately succeeds. Oh, there is so much more to say on this, and no time to do it now. But the issue goes far beyond a clever reading of the 7 Harry Potter books: it goes to the current obsession in some quarters with the "existence" of God, and with the assault on religion conducted in the name of reason. An assault usually conducted from an array of "facts," and without much that Socrates, or even Aristotle, would recognize as "reasoning."

So, much, much more, later.

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