Revolution #31, January 22, 2006
"A Leap of Faith" and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods
Part 2: The Leap From Perceptual to Rational Knowledge
Revolution #031, January 22, 2006, posted at revcom.us
This is the second article in a 3-part series. Part 1, "Religion Is Religion, Communism Is Scientific," appeared in Revolution #28. This article was written by Bob Avakian in response to a letter that was sent to him that attacked communism and argued against the scientific viewpoint and method, insisting that atheism is just another form of religion. Chairman Avakian addresses a number of points in that letter but focuses on the fundamental difference between a communist and scientific outlook and method on the one hand and, on the other hand, a religious worldview which relies on "leaps of faith."
Originally published in Revolution #10, this article is available in its entirety online at revcom.us/a/010/avakian-leap-faith-leap-rationale.htm.
Organize discussions groups at your school, neighborhood, and workplace to study and wrangle over this crucial article! Send in your comments and questions – online at revcom.us or by regular mail to RCP Publications (P.O. Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654-0486).
As Mao Tsetung pointed out in his important philosophical works, such as "On Practice," in the gaining (or accumulation) of knowledge by people, there are two basic stages: The first is the stage of perceptual knowledge, and the second stage is that of rational knowledge. And arriving at the second stage, of rational knowledge, not only involves and requires building on what is learned through the first (perceptual) stage but also making a leap in systematizing what is perceived: identifying the "patterns" in what is perceived and the essential character and basic identity of things that lie beyond the outward appearance of things. Getting into this further, and using some examples from "everyday life" can help illustrate this fundamental point. It can make more clear the fundamental difference between the actual acquiring of rational knowledge, through a leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, and a religious "leap of faith" which does not, and cannot, lead to rational knowledge.
As Mao also pointed out, when we first encounter anything, we see it in only a partial and scattered way, observing some of its features but not what "ties them together"--what is the essential character of something, which gives to that thing its identity as such--and how it is both different from and at the same time relates to other things. This is the stage of simply perceiving something, of perceptual knowledge. For example, many people who are not "into football" have commented that, in looking at a game of football (on television, for example) it just appears that a lot of very bulked-up guys, wearing a lot of strange equipment, are running around and violently banging into and jumping in piles on each other! But, if you watch football for a while and persevere in attempting to grasp what is actually going on, you can begin to see the "patterns" involved, and the "rules" and "laws" that actually govern and give shape and identity to what is happening. Football fans are familiar with the basic nature and essential character of the game, with its "rules" and "laws," and can readily offer all kinds of opinions and judgements about what is going on, based on an understanding of all this. But, of course, when such fans first started watching football themselves, they were not familiar with all this and it seemed to them, too, to be a bunch of random, arbitrary and "disjointed" activity. So what is involved in moving from that to an understanding of the nature of this game and its governing "rules" and "laws" is a matter of accumulating more and more perceptual knowledge and then making a leap,"putting this together" and systematizing it--analyzing it and making a synthesis of what is at the heart of it, what are the key "patterns" involved and what "ties it all together" and gives this game its character as "football." Now, quite often this actual leap, from perceptual to rational knowledge, goes on largely unconsciously after a certain point--in many cases, the person involved is not aware of consciously making this leap to rational knowledge--but it is a real leap nonetheless and leads to a higher form of understanding, rational knowledge. (Whether it is worth it to engage in the process and effort of moving from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge with regard to football is, of course, something that is culturally and socially influenced, and also involves matters of personal preference within that context--and I will not offer any opinions or judgements about this, one way or the other, here!)
But let’s contrast this kind of leap--a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge of real things --to a "leap of faith." Let us imagine someone saying, "I don’t have to watch football, or listen to explanations about it, I can come to understand it because ’god will reveal it to me.’" That would be putting forward a "leap of faith" as the way to acquire knowledge of something (in this case football). But, in fact, this kind of "leap" will not lead to actual knowledge of real things, nor can it be tested by applying means and methods that relate to the actual world of real things--there is no way to test that person’s assertion that "god will reveal" this knowledge to them, there can be no evidence of this, outside of their own claim about it. But I certainly wouldn’t advise you to be guided by that kind of "knowledge," supposedly arrived at through that kind of "leap of faith," if you are going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to bet on football games!
Let’s take another example: a trial in which someone is accused of robbery. The prosecutor will try to present evidence (witness testimony and/or other evidence) which shows that the defendant was at the place where the robbery occurred, at the time it occurred, and perhaps that the defendant was found in possession of a weapon that is very much like (or even identical to) the weapon used in the robbery, and so on. On the other side, the defense may try to show (through witness testimony, etc.) that the defendant was somewhere else entirely at the time the robbery occurred, and/or that the weapon the defendant was found with is in fact a different weapon than the one used in the robbery, and so on. When the jury moves to render a verdict, they will be called on to make a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge--to "sift through" the testimony and other facts and get to the essence of what is shown by that evidence. Of course, the jury may do this poorly--they may be influenced by prejudices, particularly against the defendant, and/or they may simply make a mistake in their attempt to determine the "patterns" and the "essential reality" of what has been presented to them--but that does not change the fact that what is required, what they are called on to do, is precisely to make a leap from facts presented (testimony, etc.) to a conclusion about what those facts reveal that is essential about what is at issue (whether or not the defendant committed the robbery). Once again, what is involved is a leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge.
If, for example, the defense presents 10 witnesses, including people who have no relation to the defendant, who testify that, at the time the robbery was committed, they are certain that they saw the defendant in a different location entirely from where the robbery occurred--and especially if the prosecution is not able to "shake" those witnesses with regard to this testimony--then it is only logical to conclude that the defendant did not commit the robbery and must be found not guilty. But the important thing, in relation to the points being discussed here, is to recognize that what is involved in arriving at that verdict is "drawing a conclusion from the facts"--which again involves and requires an actual leap from perceptual knowledge (hearing the testimony) to rational knowledge (making the determination, drawing the conclusion, that the person could not have committed the robbery). That this is the only logical conclusion that could be drawn from the facts presented may tend to "blur" the fact that there is a leap involved--that reaching this conclusion requires going beyond the mere hearing of the facts to "putting the facts together" and grasping the essence of what those facts show. And it is important to emphasize that what is involved is precisely a logical conclusion--one that is arrived at by applying logical reasoning to enable the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge.
Again, let us contrast this with a "leap of faith." If someone were sitting on the jury and they said, "I know that boy is guilty because ’The Lord told me so’"--that would be the opposite of applying logic and reason: It would be a "leap of faith," as opposed to the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge--a "leap of faith" that would fly in the face of the facts and of the logical process involved in making a radically different kind of leap: a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge. And I don’t think I have to make much of an argument that it would not be very desirable to have people on a jury who would be proceeding by making those kinds of "leaps of faith" and determining the fate of someone in that way.
Or, let’s take a final example "from everyday life." If a small child observes traffic--and especially if what is involved in the flow of traffic, etc., is explained to the child by an adult--the child will come to see, before too long, that if they step out into moving traffic, they will be badly hurt, or even killed: they will have gone from seeing what at first appears to be the random movement of vehicles, without a definite "pattern" and character, to understanding what the "pattern" and the essential character of this movement of vehicles is, and when it is safe, and not safe, to cross the street. Here again what is involved is the kind of leap from perceptual to rational knowledge that we have seen illustrated in previous examples. But if the adult instructing the child were to tell them, "It is safe to walk out in front of the moving traffic, because ’god will protect you’"--that would be, not a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but a "leap of faith" that flies in the face of reason and logic--and would almost certainly have terrible and tragic consequences.
Scientific Knowledge and the Scientific Method
And if this crucial difference between these two radically different kinds of leaps--the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, as opposed to a "leap of faith"--applies, and is of real importance, in "everyday life," this is so in a concentrated way with regard to scientific knowledge: knowledge that is acquired and tested through the consistent and systematic application of the scientific method--in contrast with "leaps of faith."
The scientific method involves carrying out investigations of reality, including through observation and experimentation, to accumulate facts which then are systematized into a theory which gets to what it is that these facts have in common, what patterns they reveal, and what is the essential character of what is involved. Then this theory is tested by applying it once more against the standard of what can be learned through further experimentation and observation proceeding according to this theory, to see if the results are consistently in line with what is predicted by this theory. If, in the application of this scientific method, results are obtained--things are observed or results produced through experiments, and so on--that contradict the theory; if, for example, things can be shown to happen which this theory predicts could not happen; then it must be concluded that the theory is wrong, or at least that it contains flaws (is wrong in some respects). If, however, after repeated testing, from a number of different directions and over a whole period of time, the results continue to be consistently in line with what is predicted by the theory--and no results or observations lead to facts which are in contradiction to the theory, or cannot be explained by it--then it can be concluded that this theory is correct. But, even in achieving the status of a generally accepted scientific theory, any particular theory must not only be subjected to repeated testing but it must also be subjected to review by other scientists, particularly those with knowledge and expertise in the particular field of science that the theory relates to; and if it "passes" that review--if none of these scientists can show that the theory is flawed, or simply wrong, if there are no results which can be shown to contradict the theory and its predictions about reality-- then the theory will acquire general acceptance in the scientific community as a valid and true explanation of reality (or that part of reality that the theory deals with).
Now, it is true that the development of scientific theories generally involves the formulation of initial "conjectures" and "preliminary hypotheses" about things--in other words, in a sense scientists often make "informed guesses" about the way something in reality might be, even before they can provide proof of this. But, first of all, even these preliminary hypotheses are themselves based on previously accumulated, and verified, evidence about the way reality actually is--as opposed to "leaps of faith" and religious declarations about things, which we are simply expected to believe without any concrete evidence or the prospect of ever being able to obtain such evidence. Secondly, scientists take their preliminary hypotheses and systematically test them in the real world, and only on that basis are new scientific facts generated which can then contribute to the development of generally accepted scientific theories.
Of course, scientists can, do, and have made mistakes. This has happened not only with individual scientists but at times even with the scientific community in general and those who are regarded as "experts" and "authorities" in various fields of science. Scientists are after all human beings with limitations; they live in and are part of society, and they are influenced in various ways by the ideas which prevail in society at a given time. At the same time, as further knowledge is acquired--as further experimentation and observation goes on, not only in direct relation to a particular theory but in science, and indeed in the world at large--any particular theory will be subjected to continued testing and review, and it may turn out that new things that are learned call into question parts, or in some cases even all, of a particular theory, and then the theory will have to be modified or even completely discarded. But the crucial point is this: The scientific method provides the means for continuing to investigate reality and continuing to learn more about it, and on that basis to correct mistakes that are made.
The understanding of reality that is gained, through the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, becomes, in turn, the basis, the foundation, from which further perceptual knowledge that is accumulated is analyzed and synthesized to make further leaps of this kind (from perceptual to rational knowledge yet again...and then again...). So the acquiring of knowledge--by individuals and by society and humanity overall--is not a "one-time" thing, but an ongoing process. This applies to "everyday life" and it applies in a concentrated way with regard to the conscious and systematic application of the scientific method. This relates to another point Mao emphasized: beyond the leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, there is a further leap--from rational knowledge to practice, in the course of which material reality is changed and further perceptual knowledge is gained, laying the foundation for a further leap to rational knowledge...and on...and on.
A "Leap of Faith" is a Leap Away From a True Understanding of Reality
In opposition to this, a religious worldview--which insists on a reliance on faith and "leaps of faith" instead of investigation and analysis of the real world and the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge--such a religious worldview cannot lead to a true understanding of reality, and in fact is bound to lead away from such an understanding in fundamental ways. Of course, not all people who are religious are "scriptural literalists"--who insist on an acceptance of the Bible (or some other scripture of some other religion) as the declared word of a supposed all-powerful and all- knowing supernatural being and therefore the "absolute truth." In fact, there are many religious people who accept a good deal of the conclusions of science, and there are more than a few who try to reconcile their belief in some kind of supernatural being with an acceptance of the scientific method and its results, as applied to the realm of material existence. At the same time, however, their religious viewpoint insists that there is some other realm, of non-material existence, when in fact there is not; and there has never been and could not be evidence offered for the existence of this non-material realm which could meet the test of scientific investigation. And it is a fact that even those who attempt to reconcile religious belief, of one kind or another, with a general acceptance of the scientific method and the results of applying this method, cannot consistently do so,because those religious beliefs are bound to conflict, at certain times and in certain ways, with the conclusions reached by the application of the scientific method.
Next issue, part 3: The Big Bang, Evolution, and Revolution