A SOLI Original Document.
You won't find it anywhere else.
. . . and there is no new thing under the sun.
"There's nothing new under the sun!" That widely accepted admonition is right so
often that the immense importance of the few times it is wrong goes largely
unnoticed. There is almost nothing new under the sun, but in that small, equivocal
"almost" lies the heart of every human advance in the history of the species.
At the risk that you may stop reading this essay, I will tell you at the outset that the
subject here is epistemology and epistemological advances. Believe it or not, there
is actually some immediate personal benefit you can derive from a better
understanding of them. We will first define epistemology, and then go on to
demonstrate the almost incredible effect that epistemological advances have on us
Epistemology is one of the most obscure, arcane branches of philosophy. It is also,
in my opinion, the single most important one. Let me state categorically that
epistemology is simple. Philosophy is simple. In general, if a thing is right, it is
simple. Don't let anyone talk you out of that simple premise.
Now for the System Of Life Institute definition of epistemology:
The study of the intellectual tools we use to understand the universe; the intellectual
Intellectual tools are at the base of all our abilities to communicate; at the heart of
every science. They are important. An epistemological advance means that we
have a new intellectual tool, and with that tool we can know something that was
unknowable before. Einstein's theory of relativity, leading him to e = mc2, made
knowable, understandable, much of what today we call modern physics. Because of
Einstein's epistemological advance, a whole new category of knowledge became
available to our increased learning ability.
"Try it and see!"
This simple phrase, used by all of us in one form or another at one time or another,
embodies one of the most dramatic and powerful epistemological advances in the
history of the human race. Without this particular advance we would be living,
technologically, in a thoroughly primitive world.
Many people wrongly think that for an idea to take hold, for a concept to affect all
of humanity, that idea must be understood and agreed to by everyone. Nothing
could be further from the truth. The dramatic, powerful epistemological advance
referred to in the previous paragraph will serve as a good example. "Try it and
see!" is everyman's version of the scientific method. The scientific method, whose
initial formulation began in the 1200's with Robert Grosseteste and his famous
student, Roger Bacon, represented a major epistemological advance for humanity.
With the advent of the scientific method, we had a new intellectual tool which
changed the kind of knowledge we could acquire. This method was refined and
modified, tested and used over the years, and probably reached its culmination with
Roger's namesake Francis Bacon (no relation) in the early 1600's. With the
scientific method firmly in place, Newton's majestic structuring of the universe had
a firm platform upon which to be tested, a platform which corroborated the truth
and utility of Newton's laws to anyone willing to observe.
Today, virtually everyone on the planet lives their lives directly or indirectly using
the scientific method; yet practically no one (statistically speaking) has ever heard
of the it. And of the few who have heard, far fewer still can tell you what it is.*1
Can we benefit from and constantly use an idea of which we are ignorant?
We can and we do. As a matter of fact, this phenomenon is characteristic of
epistemological advances, which have punctuated our existence as a species.
Epistemological advances describe things that have always been in existence, but
have never been articulated before, and so were not available as intellectual building
blocks upon which progress could be made. An understanding of the incredible
power of this type of fundamental advance puts you in the enviable position of being
able to benefit almost immediately from an advance which may take many
generations to filter through to the rest of mankind.
Probably the first and most fundamental epistemological advance is also among the
least understood and the least known. When life began on this planet, and for
hundreds of millions of years afterwards, information on how to survive was passed
on by the genes of the survivors. One generation could only communicate with
another, later generation by procreating, thereby passing on the information of
survival. It's obvious when you think of it, that the genes of those who could not
survive died with them, and so were passed on much less often, if at all. The genes
of those who could survive were passed on in greater numbers to subsequent
generations. That's how things were all over the planet until what I believe was the
first epistemological advance took place. That advance was rationality. With
rationality came the astounding, unique ability to immediately modify one's
behavior, and to pass on that information, not through procreation, but through
example. For the first time, others were capable of learning this modification, and
suddenly, it was possible to "communicate" with generations older, younger, or the
same age as your own, and, in the process, help all to better survive. In a few
minutes, or a few months we could make progress that other species would
(sometimes in vain) wait millions of years for.
Rationality and the scientific method are two of only a handful of epistemological
advances. Some of the other advances might include the ability to communicate in
the abstract, the change from a nomadic to a basically agrarian existence; the use of
fire, the invention of the wheel, the ability to add and subtract, Newtonian physics,
Einstein's relativity. The list, unlike most, definitely does not go on and on. These
fundamental advances are few and far between, and there is much debate over
whether this one or that one should or should not be included. Since that sort of
debate is not the point of this paper, let us simply agree that at least the
epistemological advance does exist.
The epistemological advance changes the way we live. It always has the capacity to
increase our ability to survive as a species. It always represents a major step
forward in our search for reality, truth, and good.
The glowing list of benefits of the epistemological advance has an ominous, dark
side, I'm afraid. Most epistemological advances have been made in the physical
sciences; there have been practically none in the area of human interaction until
now. Because of the lack of epistemological advances in the social arena, we still
treat each other much as we did in the days of the tribal caveman.
The dichotomy between physical science progress on the one hand and relative
stasis in social advancement on the other, has not gone unnoticed: in 1917, a thirty-
eight year-old Albert Einstein remarked with foreboding, ". . . all our lauded
technological progress--our very civilization--is like the axe in the hand of the
pathological criminal."*2 After four decades had passed, after "the bomb" was a
reality, Einstein commented once again on this grim phenomenon and its probable
outcome, if unchecked: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything
save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes."*3
In my opinion, the only thing which will keep the species from destroying itself is a
new intellectual tool which can immediately be applied in the social arena; a tool
which will allow us to use the full potential of human nature; a tool which becomes
more useful as time goes on. In order for us to survive, an epistemological advance
in the way we think of ourselves and others must take place. The balance of this
paper describes such an advance.
In order to understand why what I am about to say represents an epistemological
advance, we must first look at the way things are now.
When we are acting at our very best, we generally perceive ourselves as being
"rational" or "good" or "moral" or some other thing, and therein lies the problem.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will highlight rationality, but a similar point
can be made for other attributes.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines rationality as: the quality or
state of being rational. The problem is in considering rationality (or good, morality,
etc.) as a quality or state. If, in fact, it is a quality or state, then we are, at any point
in time, either rational or irrational, on or off, all or nothing. Any time you wish to
build a social system, any time you wish to deal with any other human being, you
would then "know" that all that person has to do is to "be rational" and, chances
are, everything will turn out just fine.
The problem here*4 is that if rationality (etc.) really is an attribute, a thing, it is
impossible for anyone to have that attribute all the time; everyone will slip
occasionally. This leads to the following dilemma: If we try to formulate a
workable method of dealing with people, a workable social system, we come up with
something like, "If only everyone would be rational (etc.) all the time, then we
would have no problems." Of course, it's obvious that everyone will never be
rational (etc.) all the time, so we try to come up with some other means of insuring
and/or enforcing rational (etc.) behavior. Clearly, none of the means tried has
worked. There is a reason for this. It is epistemological in nature.
Until rationality (etc.) is explicitly considered as a potential, it is impossible to
formulate a rational social system.
Thinking of rationality as a thing, a quality, or a state keeps us from having what I
call an epistemological imperative to determine right and wrong. After all, if we
"know" that ultimately it is only necessary for everyone to "be rational" in order for
everything to work, then whatever else we use to help us get by while someone is
being irrational, is, by definition, of secondary importance.
Here's the System Of Life Institute definition of rationality:
"the potential to recognize reality and modify behavior accordingly so as to better
As soon as we consider rationality as a potential, we have made an epistemological
shift. We see that everyone has the potential of rationality (whether or not they use
it). We then clearly see that rationality per se is not enough for the species to
survive. We already have rationality and we are on the verge of self-destruction.
Here then is the epistemological imperative . . . the necessary corollary of
considering rationality as a potential: We must have a new method of determining
right and wrong, since we can see that rationality, good, morality, etc., per se, will
not allow the species to survive. "If only everyone were rational (etc.)," is like
saying, "If only we weren't human beings," but of course, we are. On the other
hand, if rationality is already something we possess, then clearly we must develop
another, more profound, scientifically knowable criterion for judging our actions.
Such a criterion has been developed, and it is called The Ultimate Criterion.*6 The
Ultimate Criterion elegantly ties individual action to the survival of the species to
produce the basis for a stable, rational social system. In describing right action, the
Ultimate Criterion, like all epistemological advances, simply articulates the way
things really are; it puts us in closer touch with reality by giving us a better
description of at least one segment of it. When we recognize that all correct
survival information ever passed on is consistent with and described by the
definition of "right" given by The Ultimate Criterion,*6 then we have made an
With this advance, the knowledge of how to determine right and wrong, for the first
time, becomes explicitly available to our rationality, and therefore subject to
cumulative selection. Cumulative selection is the ability over time to build upon the
successes of the past, discarding the mistakes.*7 Every epistemological advance
has been able to benefit us precisely because of its inherent ability to carry forward
the information needed for its (and our) advancement.
I believe then that we are at the dawn of a new epoch in our history as a species. If,
in fact, The Ultimate Criterion represents a new epistemological advance, then it
signals the beginning of a system which uses human nature to its fullest potential, a
system which, over time, tends to provide more people with more benefits than any
system ever imagined. A system which will cause the species to survive . . . to
survive and flourish.
*1 From Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: scientific method; principles
and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition
and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and
experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.
*2 From a letter to Heinrich Zangger, Berlin, December, 1917
*3 Ralph E. Lapp, The Einstein Letter That Started It All. In The New York
Times Magazine [August 2, 1964]
*4 Explained further in the System Of Life Informer [December 1987]: Can You
*5 The inspiration for the idea of rationality as a potential came from Mortimer J.
Adler's discussion of potentialities in his book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes
[Chapter 8, part 3].
*6 ". . . that [is right] which, if done by every member of the species, would result
in the continued survival of the species . . ." Reprinted from The Ultimate
Criterion, published by System Of Life Institute.
*7 Richard Dawkins; The Blind Watchmaker [Chapter 3: Accumulating Small
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