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Pancritical Rationalism:

An Extropic Metacontext for Memetic Progress

copyright 1994

Max More


This paper was delivered at Extropy Institute's 1994 conference, EXTRO-1, and published in the Proceedings of that event.

The Importance of Epistemology to Extropian Living

In the course of an interview in Extropy #11, Mark Miller expressed his view that "epistemological issues are the great missing piece in Extropian philosophy right now." Although, right from the outset, Extropian thought has taken a stand with regard to issues of knowledge, belief, and justification for instance, in the principles of Self-Transformation and Dynamic Optimism Mark's point can be supported by noting the absence, until now, of a fully fleshed out epistemological framework for the Extropian philosophy. This paper seeks to provide an outline of such a framework, to compare it to traditional theories of knowledge, and to relate it to the Extropian Principles. I want to thank Mark Miller at the outset not only for stressing the importance and urgency of this issue, but for recommending William Bartley's book, The Retreat to Commitment1. My approach is deeply indebted to Bartley's.

Why concern ourselves with epistemology? Why not simply jump right into developing the rest of our worldview, and dismiss epistemology as a pointless philosophical exercise a kind of intellectual masturbation, enjoyable in itself but generating no progeny? That attitude may come naturally to philosophobes but, if it were to become dominant, would threaten to corrupt and stunt the Extropian movement, intellectually and culturally. If Extropian thought ever becomes as influential as Marxism (a possibility taken seriously by the Village Voice) then, both for our own sake and that of the future, awareness of the dangers of epistemological recklessness becomes imperative. While the Extropian perspective doesn't and shouldn't take a definite stand on every belief and practice in the world, epistemology (consciously or unconsciously) affects the entire range of our thinking and action.

To illustrate the formative cultural and intellectual power of epistemology, I want to explore briefly the lesson to be learned from Ayn Rand's Objectivism. 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. Despite all this, as many of you have observed first-hand, Rand herself and too many of her disciples became true believers dogmatists suffering from a hardening of the orthodoxies.2 This result can be traced to the combination of her personality with her Objectivist epistemology.

Rand's style, both in person and in writing, favored declaration over explanation, and easy condemnation over deeper understanding. To Rand everything appeared as sharply defined black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The way to preserve one's rationality in an irrational world, as she explained in The Virtue of Selfishness, was to continually judge and prepare to be judged. Rather than a healthy dynamic optimism, frequently Rand emanated an angry bitterness toward all who disagreed with any of her views. I find it hard to separate out her personality from her epistemology in determining the causes of these attitudes and, of course, the two are closely interrelated (a confluence that Rand brought into focus by means of her term "psychoepistemology").

Part of the dogmatizing pressure was generated by the foundationalist nature of her philosophical system, combined with her lifelong insistence that Objectivism was a closed system an intellectual structure that must be taken whole or not at all, a system that was complete, perfect, and unalterable. In contrast to the view I will develop below, Objectivism embodies a rationalist, justificationist epistemology. Foundationalism shows up first in the axiomatic foundations of Objectivism. Rand declared the ideas of existence, identity, and consciousness to be axiomatic concepts.3 According to Rand, the "base of man's knowledge of all other concepts, all axioms, propositions and thought consists of axiomatic concepts. An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest." Theists have made exactly parallel statement, replacing "axiomatic concepts" with "God" or "The Bible".

Fundamentalist foundationalism shows up also in her semi-Cartesian view that knowledge (certain knowledge) can be erected on these axiomatic foundations, by means of necessarily valid perception. (Descartes' system worked similarly except that, for him, truth and knowledge were guaranteed by clear and distinct ideas, backed in turn by an omnipotent and benevolent God.) So, we begin with unquestionable axiomatic concepts like existence, identity, and consciousness (conveniently obviating the need for philosophic and scientific research into consciousness) that cannot rationally be questioned, then we straightforwardly derive all knowledge from these foundations by means of the guaranteed validity of our senses. The truth is manifest, to Rand, and anyone failing to reach her conclusions (assuming they have the intellectual capacity to follow the reasoning) must be deliberately sabotaging their mind, they must be irrational and therefore evil. To cap it off, Objectivism was presented as a complete and closed system. This made it unnecessary (and, in fact, immoral!) to question the system or to consider alternatives, or revisions. The closed nature of the philosophy naturally resulted from its purportedly certain foundations and epistemically certain inferences.

Unlike Objectivism, Extropian thought has never claimed to be either complete or closed. On the contrary, embodied in the guiding Principles (version-numbered to help ward off stagnation) we find the imperative to continually self-criticize, reevaluate, and revise. For example: "Extropians affirm 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." This systemic openness can be bolstered by viewing the Extropian context within a metacontext of Pancritical Rationalism or epistemological fallibilism. (I will explain these terms of Bartley's later.) Pancritical Rationalism (or PCR) can be viewed not so much as an element of "Extropianism" as an attitude and sensibility that will help Extropian thought and practice flourish to the extent that such thought and practice can withstand criticism or evolve under its impact.

Rationalism and Justificationism

Karl Popper4 suggests that we can understand rationalism in this way:

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".

According to familiar versions of rationalism, everything is open to criticism, everything requires justification, except certain privileged propositions or procedures, whether these be sense data, logic, or induction. Bartley refers to this as the dilemma of ultimate commitment, or the problem of presuppositions [72]. Rationalists have held the view that any statement, to be justified (to be held rationally), must be supported by argument. Any argument involves both presuppositions and epistemic standards, which themselves require justification in turn. Argumentation thus leads to an infinite regress of justification, with each new supporting reason itself requiring justification. Unless we reach some indisputable, bedrock position, the original proposition remains unjustified. To justify the original contention, some unquestionable authority must be reached. Such standards, criteria, or ultimate presuppositions are simply accepted without further justification.

The situation is problematic whether different people have the same or diverse ultimate standards. What if people have different ultimate stopping points? How can we rationally arbitrate between them? Suppose René asserts that he has the correct means for deciding between differing ultimate standards or authorities. George will reply that no, he has the correct means and it shows that René's method is faulty and, furthermore, so is his position. What if, on the other hand, everyone did accept the same ultimate standard? Still, there would be no way to prove that it led to objective truth about the world. An ultimate standard cannot be justified by appeal to another standard, for then it would not actually be the ultimate standard. But neither can it be justified by appeal to itself, for that would be to argue in a vicious circle. But if the standard of rationality is held immune from the need for rational justification, it can be said to be held irrationally or dogmatically. Many thinkers have therefore concluded that arguing about ultimate standards is pointless. It appears that reason is relativized to the differing ultimate standards, defining irreconcilable ideological communities.

The skeptic reacts to this situation by holding that since nothing can be supported rationally, we should (try to) suspend judgment about everything. Such a position is hard to live by: How, for example, can we go about our lives while refusing to accept the validity of inductive inferences? David Hume, the disturbing philosopher who first demonstrated the impossibility of justifying induction, found that when he left his philosophical study, he was unable to prevent himself from believing in the procedure that, in his reflective moments, he believed to be irrational. This conflict of practical action and theoretical belief has bothered generations of thinkers familiar with Hume's skeptical writings.

While the rationalist skeptic frets over the problem, the fideist glories in it, proclaiming that an irrational, ungrounded ultimate commitment is necessary. Since no ultimate standards can be justified, the fideist gloats, 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 inability of the rationalist to justify ultimate epistemic standards opens the door to securing agreement by means of force or psychological manipulation.

A central epistemic procedure that philosophical thinkers have long sought to justify is that of induction. Inductive inference appears to be crucial to much of our daily reasoning as well as essential for scientific methodology. Whereas deductive reasoning involves logically valid inferences from a universal rule combined with an instance to a conclusion about a particular case ("All tax-collectors are extortionists, Sally is a tax-collector, therefore Sally is an extortionist"), inductive inference goes from some finite number of instances to a universal conclusion ("That human died, and that human died, and that human died, therefore all humans die"). If we want our beliefs to be justified, we must acquire them by a means that confers justification. So can we show inductive inference to be justified?

Clearly inductive inferences are not deductively valid. No matter how many instances we have seen of humans dying, we cannot logically deduce that the next human we observe will also die, since there is no contradiction in asserting the contrary. We can make the inference deductively valid by adding a premise:

Alice was human and she died.

Bob was human and he died.

Chris was human and he died.

[and so on...]

Observed past regularities will always continue into the future.

Therefore, the next human I observe will die.

Now we cannot deny the conclusion if we accept the truth of the premises. Unfortunately, to produce a deductively valid argument, we had to introduce a premise that itself embodies induction. So we have assumed induction in order to make the argument valid.

We will run into circularity even if we forget about trying to turn induction into deduction. When I have observed a constant conjunction between As and Bs (for instance between night being followed by day), I make the inductive inference that the next A will be followed by a B. For this belief to be justified I must be justified in believing in the procedure by which I came to the belief. I believe that a B will occur because I have observed past instances of As being followed by Bs, and I now observe an A. But my belief that this A will be followed by a B will be justified only if I am justified in believing that observed instances provide reason to believe a certain statement about unobserved instances. In other words, I need to be justified in believing in some kind of Uniformity Principle, such as "Instances of which we have had no experience will resemble those of which we have had experience; the course of nature will continue uniformly the same". But how am I to justify that belief? I must justify it on the basis of experience: I must justify the Uniformity Principle by means of a justified inference from what has been observed to the truth of the principle. But this is circular reasoning, since every inference from the observed to the unobserved is based on the Uniformity Principle. None of the justificationist attempts to solve this problem whether Strawson's argument based on the meaning of "reasonable", Russell's argument that induction is a priori, or Reichenbach and Salmon's practicalist or pragmatist approach, has withstood criticism. Pancritical Rationalism solves the problem by doing away with the need for induction, replacing it with the falsification of scientific laws in terms of observational statements.

Induction is not alone in its problematic status as an unjustifiable ultimate standard. I could have chosen instead to look at sensory input as a foundation for knowledge or justified belief. Whatever the particular privileged epistemic process, the problem of ultimate commitment applies to all foundationalist epistemologies (whether intuitionist or empiricist). Less clear is whether the problem equally to coherentist epistemologies, which reject the idea of epistemically basic beliefs. Unfortunately Bartley doesn't discuss coherentist views like that of Keith Lehrer. Most coherentist views suffer from other fatal flaws however; linear coherence theories, for instance, allow justification to result from infinitely-long, non-terminating sequences of inferences from other beliefs, or from circular chains of reasoning. Possibly some form of negative, holistic5 coherence theory avoids the problem of ultimate commitment, though it would still be a justificationist approach. I shall not try to decide that question here. Whether foundationalist or coherence, standard epistemologies are all theories of epistemic justification. A typical foundationalist view seeks to justify beliefs in terms of some special class of epistemically basic beliefs. In past centuries such basic beliefs were taken to be things like intellectual intuition, the word of God, or clear and distinct ideas. Modern foundationalists have dethroned these and installed beliefs about appearances, or sense-data, as the specially privileged foundations of all justified belief.

It seems, then, that whatever particular epistemology she subscribes to, the rationalist faces the problem of ultimate commitments. As a result, rationalists have been hard pressed to respond to fundamental anti-rationalist arguments. As Bartley says:

"The blame for continued failure by rationalists to answer skeptical and fideistic arguments about the limits of rationality should, in fact, be placed on the inadequacy and primitive character of our theories of rationality, or on our conception of rationalist identity, rather than on our rationality or reasoning capacity itself, where Pascal, Kant, and many others have put it." [Bartley, p.85]

I will follow Bartley's procedure in the middle part of this paper by emphasizing the difficulties inherent in two standard conceptions of rationalism panrationalism (or comprehensive rationalism), and critical rationalism. Having seen the stages passed through by rationalism, we will be in a position to appreciate a third conception, pancritical rationalism (or comprehensively critical rationalism).


Panrationalism is not a modern invention. Bartley tells us that panrationalism can be traced back at least as far as Epictetus who wrote in his Discourses: "To be a reasonable creature, that alone is insupportable which is unreasonable; but everything reasonable may be supported." The panrationalist conception of what it means to be a rationalist holds two principles:

(1) Any position that can be justified or established by appeal to rational argument is to be accepted; and

(2) only positions that can be justified or established by appeal to rational argument are to be accepted.

Rationalists have long taken these principles as given, instead focusing on questions that arise only if the tenets are assumed to be correct, in particular the question: "What is the nature of the rational authority or standard according to which a rationalist can justify all his propositions?" Most theories of knowledge that have offered answers to this question can be classified as Rationalist/Intellectualist or as Empiricist. (Although "rationalist" is the more common term for the first kind of position, I will use the term "intellectualist" to avoid confusion with the broader meaning of rationalist employed throughout this paper.) The intellectualist justifies her beliefs by appealing to a purported faculty of intellectual intuition, or pure Reason. The empiricist appeals instead to sensory experience. Despite the sustained attention of many sharp minds, all of these attempts have collapsed.

Rene Descartes, a paradigmatic intellectualist, sought an indubitable standard capable of terminating the regress of argument, without need for a dogmatic commitment. He thought he found such a standard in clear and distinct ideas presented to the intellect, their veracity guaranteed by God. All error came from the will, which decided that something was known before having been reduced to clear and distinct ideas. In the seventeenth century, skeptics like Gassendi weakened confidence in Descartes' scheme, but it was crippled in the eighteenth century by John Locke, David Hume, and finally buried by Immanuel Kant's "antinomies of pure reason". Our intellectual intuitions, it turned out, are too variable and unreliable. Furthermore, the rationalists realized, intellectualist versions of panrationalism were too wide, that is they allowed in mutually inconsistent beliefs, and they granted tenability to belief in such things as God, which rationalists thought should be excluded by a sensible rationalism.

Empiricist versions of panrationalism developed from the works of Bacon, Locke, and Hume, ending up in the twentieth century as logical positivism. Here the infinite regress of demands for justification were stopped not by intellectual intuitions but by sense data which it was held, were self-guaranteeing, incorrigible, unchallengeable. For empiricists, it was nature rather than God which did not deceive, and the irrationalist was the person whose ideas and theories could not be derived from sense observations or who clung to their beliefs with greater tenacity that sense experience sanctioned. As Bartley points out, "Whereas the main fault of intellectualism had been to include too much, to ascribe rationality to untenable views, the main fault of empiricism was to exclude too much, to exclude obviously tenable views as irrational." [90] Thus empiricists beginning with Hume found themselves unable to justify induction, causality, the self, the existence of the external world or of other minds, or the rationality of scientific procedure.

When it became generally accepted that even Kant's attempted fusion of intellectualism and rationalism into a new form of panrationalism had collapsed, many rationalists took refuge in pragmatism or instrumentalism. Their inability to justify some of their most basic and significant ideas and procedures was no problem, they now said, since beliefs in such things as scientific laws or in the existence of other minds were not, after all, descriptions of reality. Rather than describing the world, such ideas are instruments, tools, or symbols that help us find our way around. These beliefs are not justified on a factual basis grounded in sense experience, but only on the basis of their utility in making predictions or in classifying the objects of experience.

Instrumentalism turned out to be a weapon easily adoptable by the irrationalists. They saw that instrumentalism allowed irrational commitments to persist without coming into conflict with science. The enemies of reason could plausibly declare belief in instruments or symbols such as God, angels, or the soul to be useful in organizing, interpreting, and handling experience especially if we include moral experience. Rationalists found their new weapon turned against them; they could no longer object to the irrationalists that their beliefs had no foundation in empirical reality. Also disturbingly, we can see that instrumentalism lends support to views that assert the reducibility (not the mere correlation) of beliefs to nonrational factors such as social class, nationality, race, gender, historical period, and so on. We see a clear case of this in Marxism, where ideology is generated by one's economic class which itself results from the material relations of production.

A panrationalist may yet hope to discover a standard by which all irrational beliefs can be excluded and all rational beliefs justified. However, by returning to the two requirements for a panrationalist, we can see that panrationalism is impossible in principle. The two requirements were:

(1) Any position that can be justified or established by appeal to rational argument is to be accepted; and

(2) only positions that can be justified or established by appeal to rational argument are to be accepted.

We cannot simultaneously hold both principles for if we accept the second principle we must reject the first. The second principle enjoins us to accept only positions that can be justified by appeal to rational argument, yet it seems we cannot justify the first principle by appeal to sense experience or intellectual intuitions, or any other rational authority.

If we are to reject one of the two criteria for rationalism, it should be the second because (a) we surely will not want to abandon the requirement that a rationalist accept any proposition that can be rationally justified; and (b) the second requirement is self-contradictory. The proposition that only positions that can be justified or established by appeal to rational argument are to be accepted cannot itself be justified by appeal to rational criteria. By its own imperative, if the second requirement is true, it must be rejected. The requirement thereby asserts its own untenability.

We should not accept the second principle because we should recognize that some statements, beliefs, and criteria at any time must be simply accepted without argument because they form the starting point for argument. As Popper puts it: "Since all argument must proceed from assumptions, it is plainly impossible to demand that all assumptions should be based on argument." (The Open Society, 230) Of course, an assumption accepted without justification in order to start a particular line of argument might later, in the context of a different argument, become the object of justification. Significant results cannot be obtained from argument if we accede to the demand to start with no assumptions, or even to the weaker demand that we start with a very small set of assumptions such as the Kantian "categories" or Rand's "axiomatic concepts". Comprehensive rationalism or panrationalism falls down by being unable to justify itself. The rationalist attitude can be based neither upon argument nor experience, for a rationalist attitude must first be adopted if any argument or experience is to move a person. Only those who have already adopted this attitude will be convinced by arguments in its favor.

Critical Rationalism

A number of rationalists, including Alfred Ayer, Morton White, and Karl Popper, recognizing these difficulties with panrationalism, proceeded to develop what we can call (following Popper) Critical Rationalism. These critical rationalists, according to Bartley, hold three points in common. (1) They begin by acknowledging that rationality is limited in "that some matters, such as the principles and standards of rationality, cannot be justified." [97] As Morton White puts it: "There is no rock which can serve as a fulcrum on which... claims... can be weighed in some absolutely decisive way. The notion that there is such a rock is one of the chimeras of western thought."6 (2) They hold that this concession is insignificant, or too minor to give comfort to irrationalism. (3) ) "If challenged, they tend to ground or justify their rationalist position in personal or social commitment to standards which are beyond challenge." [97]

Alfred Ayer started out as a panrationalist of sense experience (or what is usually referred to as a logical positivist) in his 1936 book, Language, Truth, and Logic, but developed a form of critical rationalism in The Problem of Knowledge (1956). Ayer states that it is "impossible to provide a rational justification for basic philosophical standards, principles, and procedures" or to give a proof "that what we regard as rational procedure really is so; that our conception of what constitutes good evidence really is right."7 Ayer's concession means he avoids claiming more than he logically can. Yet Ayer fails to demonstrate how his position, as a theory of rationality, can afford to leave his epistemic standards unjustified. Ayer's explanation of why his standards need no justification holds that a standard "could be irrational only if there were a standard of rationality which it failed to meet; whereas in fact it goes to set the standard: arguments are judged to be rational or irrational by reference to it." (Ayer, p.75) "Since there can be no proof that what we take to be good evidence really is so", then "it is not sensible to demand one." (Ayer, p.81)

Ayer's move from panrationalism to critical rationalism results in a conservatism, in which "the business of the philosopher becomes to analyze, and state as principles, the patterns of accepted ways of thinking and speaking." [101] This change of attitude can be described in theological terms: Ayer moves away from apologetics (the procedure that seeks rational justification for religious commitment) to kerygmatics (the exposition and description of the fundamental message). Bad as this is, even worse is the fatal flaw in this strategy for bolstering rationalism against irrationalism: The same move is open to irrationalists. If Ayer holds that the ultimate standards of rationality are unjustifiable because they themselves set the standard for justification, the irrationalist can contend that Ayer can have no objection to someone who is committed to a different ultimate standard (such as Biblical writing). Ayer has simply begged the question in favor of his standards; he has done nothing and has admitted that he can do nothing to show why one set of ultimate standards or commitments must be chosen over others. If Ayer's standards are in fact correct, then all argument must proceed in terms of them. But the correctness of these standards is just what is at issue. We don't even have to turn to irrationalists to find challenges to Ayer's standards: Popper's conception of scientific method rejects not only the legitimacy but the existence of inductive procedure. Ayer's approach, then, turns out to be just one type of fideism rather than an antidote to it.

Popper's critical rationalism also suffers from fideism, although he is at least open about it, as we can see in this passage from The Open Society and Its Enemies, where he proposes to adopt a "minimum concession to irrationalism." [p.416-17] He writes:

whoever adopts the rationalist attitude does so because he has adopted, without reasoning, some proposal or decision, or belief, or habit, or behavior, which therefore in its turn must be called irrational. Whatever it may be, we can describe it as an irrational faith in reason.... the fundamental rationalist attitude is based upon an irrational decision, or upon faith in reason. Accordingly, our choice is open. We are free to choose some form of irrationalism, even some radical or comprehensive form. But we are also free to choose a critical form of rationalism, one which frankly admits its limitations, and its basis in an irrational decision (and so far, a certain priority for irrationalism).

Is there a way out of this irrationalist quagmire? Can we be rationalists with good conscience? Is rationalist integrity possible? Can we reject all forms of irrationalism and fideism without having to exempt our own standards of rationality from scrutiny and possible revision? I will argue that another form of rationalism pancritical rationalism is the answer, and furthermore clearly and powerfully helps to promote extropian goals, as expressed in the five Extropian Principles.

Pancritical Rationalism

My discovery of pancritical rationalism (PCR) reminds me of how I felt in November 1981 when I came across libertarian writings for the first time. Until then I had tasted a range of political viewpoints but had found none of them terribly appealing. Particular elements of some seemed right, but none of the intellectual packages as a whole made sense to me. A similar frustrating uneasiness resulted from my studies of the range of epistemologies, past and present. I had found certain rationalists, such as Karl Popper, appealing but reading Bartley's The Retreat To Commitment stirred the same excitement and feeling of fit in me as had reading Rothbard's For A New Liberty 12 years before. But Bartley's PCR offered something new. PCR's supremely anti-authoritarian perspective on rationalism seems to me to harmonize with the values and concerns embodied in what we call Extropianism. I want to show how this is so, first by detailing just what it is that PCR expounds, and then by directly relating it to the values expressed by the Extropian Principles.

Pancritical rationalism, uniquely among epistemologies8, requires no authorities. Look at the questions posed by the various epistemological schools. As Bartley notes, they ask "Questions like: How do you know? How do you justify your beliefs? With what do you guarantee your opinions? all beg authoritarian answers whether those answers be: the Bible, the leader, the social class, the nation, the fortuneteller, the Word of God, the intellect, or sense experience." [110] Bartley makes an interesting parallel with political philosophy in which the traditional question has been: "Who should rule?" Or: "What is the supreme political authority?" Despite many political philosophers having been motivated by a desire to overcome authorities, the form of the traditional question has molded thinking so that one authority (such as a monarch) is merely replaced with another (such as elected representatives). Similarly, supposedly anti-authoritarian revolutions in epistemology have succeeded only in replacing old authorities (such as intellectual intuition) with new authorities (such as incorrigible sense data).9

PCR shares the comprehensive aims of panrationalism, seeing the scope of reason as unlimited and, with critical rationalism, rejects the demand for rational proofs of our rational standards. Pancritical rationalism goes further in that it also abandons "the demand that everything else except the standards be proved or justified by appealing to the authority of the standards, or by some other means. Nothing gets justified...everything get criticized." [Bartley, 112] Instead of replacing philosophical justification with mere description of existing rational standards, PCR urges the philosophical criticism of standards as the proper task of the rationalist philosopher. Instead of proposing infallible intellectual authorities, we can "build a philosophical program for counteracting intellectual error." [112-13] A little later I'll examine what such a program might involve.

When PCR replaces authoritarian justification with unbounded criticism, holding all positions to be criticizable, it means (in Bartley's words): "(1) it is not necessary, in criticism, in order to avoid infinite regress, to declare a dogma that could not be criticized (since it was unjustifiable); (2) it is not necessary to mark off a special class of statements, the justifiers, which did the justifying and criticizing but was not open to criticism; (3) there is not a point in all argument, the terms, which is exempted from criticism; (4) the criticizers the statements in terms of which criticism is conducted are themselves open to review."

Crucial to grasping the essence of pancritical rationalism is the realization that, in the past, the concept of criticism has always been fused with the concept of justification. The inevitable result was that criticism was made in an authoritarian manner: "You belief is irrational because it cannot be justified in terms of my absolute standard of justification." Or, in a weaker strategy, the criticism is that a belief conflicts with the rational authority (rather than that it cannot be derived from it). This fusion of criticism with justification caused every supposedly critical philosophy to slam into the dilemma of ultimate commitment. PCR replaces these approaches with what Bartley calls a nonjustificational philosophy of criticism. So, how are we to conceive of a rationalist according to pancritical rationalism? Bartley again:

"The new framework permits a rationalist to be characterized as one who is willing to entertain any position and holds all his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself, open to criticism; one who protects nothing from criticism by justifying it irrationally; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith or irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is committed, attached, addicted, to no position." [118]

Pancritical rationalism is able to maintain its integrity, unlike other forms of rationalism. PCR satisfies its own requirements since it can hold itself open to criticism. Earlier forms of rationalism, being unjustifiable, were internally inconsistent, but PCR is consistent because the practice of holding everything open to criticism can itself be held open to criticism. 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. I doubt that such an argument is possible, and it is up to the critic to make the argument. Until such an argument is forthcoming, pancritical rationalism can be held to be a consistent and coherent conception of rationalism.

In saying that I, as a pancritical rationalist, hold everything open to criticism, I do not mean that in practice I hold no views beyond question. For instance, it would seem rather silly for me to declare that I might revise the belief that I am over two years old (to use Bartley's example). I may practically hold that belief beyond criticism in the sense that I do not take seriously the possibility of revision of this belief but I am not logically committed to doing so. I do not have to be dogmatically committed to the belief. Just possibly, a vast expanse of my fundamental worldview is radically mistaken. Perhaps the world is a simulation that was initiated just a month ago and all apparently older memories are implanted. While I do not take this possibility seriously, PCR suggests that I not rule out, in principle, the possibility that future events might give me cause to reevaluate the mutually-supporting set of beliefs that convince me that I cannot be less than two years old. As Bartley notes, "[T]he claim that a rationalist need not commit himself even to argument is no claim that he will not or should not have strong convictions on which he is prepared to act. We can assume or be convinced of the truth of something without being committed to its truth." (p.121) Although Bartley himself never discusses the word "certainty", I think a pancritical rationalist can, with consistency, be certain of some of her beliefs, if by this she means that, given her current understanding of the world, she cannot imagine how a particular belief could ever turn out to be false. Such a contextual certainty involves being thoroughly convinced of a belief, but does not imply that the belief is held dogmatically held to be beyond criticism, beyond revision in principle.

It should also be obvious that being rational, according to the PCR model, does not mean that you have no unexamined beliefs, presuppositions, or assumptions, many of which may be false. Rationality has nothing to do with omniscience, infallibility, or total awareness of your beliefs, implicit and explicit. The rational person is one who is genuinely willing to subject their assumptions and presuppositions to criticism once those assumptions come to light. Such an attitude has been felicitously expressed by the world-shaking biologist Charles Darwin:

"I had, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer." [Charles Darwin, Autobiography, p.123]

Finally, holding everything open to criticism does not means you hold that there are no true statements or valid arguments, or that for every proposition there exists a successful criticism of it. Such a relativistic view would be precisely what pancritical rationalism is intended to avoid. Relativism and the problem of ultimate commitments are closely tied to one another, and PCR provides an effective response to both.

The preeminent logician and philosopher of language, W.V. Quine, in his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" has argued that we can always maintain a belief, no matter how bizarre, so long as we are willing to make changes at other points in our web of belief. As practicing rationalists, what guides do we have to help ensure that our belief-web evolves towards greater truth rather than towards deepening delusion? I do not have the space here to develop any suggestions in depth; I recommend a study of Robert Nozick's suggested Rules of Rationality from his recent book The Nature of Rationality, and I will briefly mention four methods offered by Bartley of reducing error by criticizing our conjectures:

(1) The check of logic: Is the theory in question consistent?

(2) The check of sense observation: Is the theory empirically refutable by some sense observation? And if it is, do we know of any refutation of it?

(3) The check of scientific theory: Is the theory, whether or not it is in conflict with sense observation, in conflict with any scientific hypotheses?

(4) The check of the problem: What problem is the theory intended to solve? Does it do so successfully?

The check of the problem is especially useful for theories or conjectures that are not clearly empirically falsifiable, such as ethical and metaphysical ideas, or interpretations of physical data (such as interpretations of the equations of the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics). Even when the nature of a conjecture doesn't admit of empirical checking, we may make headway by determining whether a view truly gets to grips with a problem, or whether it merely displaces the problem. We can ask whether a particular theory solves a problem better than any competing theory, and decide whether it simply multiplies problems. We might also see if it is incompatible with other philosophical theories that appear necessary for solving other problems. Other things being equal, we will favor a theory with high fecundity, i.e., one that raises genuine new problems that had not occurred to us before.

Extropian Principles & Pancritical Rationalism:

How should we think of the relation between pancritical rationalism assuming we find it both attractive and able to withstand criticism and the Extropian perspective? This question can be broken down into two parts: First, should we think of PCR as one element of the Extropian philosophy an idea subsumed under one of the Principles, or as part of a cognitive environment within which extropic thinking and living can flourish? Second, how might adopting PCR further the values and goals codified in the Principles? Having shown why PCR is attractive and powerful in its own right, I can now relate it to the Principles without being vulnerable to the charge that I am treating the Principles as authoritative standards by which to choose epistemological views. It should go without saying that the Principles act as a coherent codification and expression of the shared values and goals of Extropians, and not as foundational statements against which all beliefs and practices must be tested for acceptance or rejection.

To answer the first question: I recommend that pancritical rationalism be viewed, strictly speaking, not as an element subsumed under the title of "the Extropian philosophy" but as an attitude and sensibility that will help Extropian thought and practice flourish to the extent that such thought and practice can withstand criticism or evolve under its impact. In other words, let us not bestow the status of "official Extropian epistemology" on PCR. A person can be a perfectly fine Extropian without being convinced of PCR, and someone can be a principled adherent of PCR without necessarily being Extropian. Naturally I think the two sets of ideas fit well together, such that an Extropian is likely to find PCR appealing, and a pancritical rationalist has a good chance of adopting Extropian ideas if she comes across them in an appropriate context.

Rather than seeing PCR as a component of Extropian philosophy, I suggest we regard it as (in Bartley's terms) a metacontext for the Extropian context. Ideas, memes, and ways of thinking can be classified as positions (such as "women have a right to abortion"), or as contexts for positions. A context is a belief system, ideology, institution, or tradition (libertarianism, Marxism, Sufism, the traditional conception of sportsmanlike behavior). Any position or context may be the object of criticisms, which themselves might be either positions or contexts. A metacontext is a context of contexts, and have to do with how and why contexts are held. Given this scheme of Bartley's, we can understand the Extropian philosophy as a context, and pancritical rationalism as a metacontext especially conducive to the worldview.10 Before going on to examine what general conditions are conducive to sustaining the metacontext of fallibilism or nonjustificationism, I will look specifically at how living in accordance with the Extropian Principles meshes in a mutually supportive way with PCR.

Boundless Expansion:

By replacing justificationism with fallibilism, and by encouraging the practice of opening to, welcoming, and respecting criticism, pancritical rationalism maximizes the pursuit of truth, accelerating the death of poorly-supported views and ineffective practices. It immunizes against dogmatization, fostering critical thought and an anti-fideistic culture and so opens every area of thought and practice to unlimited, perpetual improvement. Its critical procedures are precisely those embodied in science and, we hope, in practicing scientists. PCR's effects are radical, expansive, and progressive.


PCR obviously engenders self-criticism and openness to criticism by others, thereby helping us to leave behind ineffective beliefs and habits, flexibly exchanging them for new ones. By encouraging us to welcome criticism and to look forward to finding our errors rather than focusing on proving our beliefs to be beyond question and our personal characteristics, habits, and goals to be perfect, PCR assists us in releasing psychological blocks to the admission of error (and the improvement made possible by the discovery of error). In my formulations of Extropian cognitive habits, I have always stressed that we should tie our feelings of pride and self-esteem not to how often we can convince ourselves that we are right, but to how open we are to reevaluating our positions and to revising them when we cannot rebut criticism. The confluence of self-transformation and PCR shows itself in this principle's recommendation of rationality, critical thinking, and personal growth, and opposition to faith, adherence to sacred texts, uncritical acceptance of authorities, and blind conformity.

Dynamic Optimism:

Dynamic optimism expresses the attitude that we are capable of improving matters if only we exert ourselves in looking for a better method, a more effective practice, a larger information base, and a truer model of the world. This optimism is dynamic since it rejects any form of passive faith. It reframes difficulties so they are seen as challenges rather than as problems, directing the mind towards the range of possibilities and resources for overcoming the difficulty. Contrary to faith, dynamic optimism recommends experimentation to uncover the truth fitting well with PCR's fallibilist emphasis on being open to new perspectives. (Evolutionary epistemology which has close ties to PCR and may be held conjointly also resonates with this aspect of dynamic optimism.) Dynamic optimism acts as a potent psycho-epistemological vaccine, not only against pessimism and defeatism, but against dogmatization and stagnation, and so encourages the openness to new information and approaches exemplified by the pancritical rationalist.

Intelligent Technology:

If we rarely change our beliefs regarding the most effective way to accomplish a task, clinging to familiar means, we will avoid adopting new, superior technology, furthermore acting as a drag on technology's largely demand-driven advance. PCR probably accelerates technological advancement by stimulating the search for superior means of solving problems, and will certainly stimulate the individual rationalist's discovery and adoption of innovative technologies. For present purposes I mean to construe "technology" broadly enough to include the design of intellectual and cultural institutions. Widespread adoption of PCR should incentivize the development of technologies facilitating criticism and information gathering and intelligent filtering, for instance true hypertext systems such as the proposed Xanadu11, and knowbots to roam the Net for information relevant to criticism and answering criticism.

Spontaneous Order:

A centrally directed culture or intellectual community will generate fewer perspectives, a more tightly restricted range of criticisms, and slower flow of innovations than a diverse, spontaneously ordering culture. PCR requires not only relentless criticism of ideas, but also generation of numerous innova tive approaches. Spontaneous social orders both embody the liberty to develop divergent ideas, and provide an effective framework for the dissemination of those ideas. Spontaneous orders only arise in the presence of appropriate regularities (property rights and price signals in markets, variation and selection in evolution); therefore, we need to choose the rules of our interactions leading to such orders so that they form an "ecological niche"12 for rationality.

This last point the need to establish and maintain conditions conducive to a ecological niche for rationality deserves some attention here, so I will conclude by briefly raising the issue of how to achieve this, especially in our activities, fora, and institutions as Extropians. Bartley presents the issue in the following question:

How can our intellectual life and institutions, our traditions, and even our etiquette, sensibility, manners and customs, and behavior patterns, be arranged so as to expose our beliefs, conjectures, ideologies, policies, positions, programs, sources of ideas, traditions, and the like, to optimum criticism, so as at once to counteract and eliminate as much intellectual error as possible, and also so as to contribute to and insure the fertility of the intellectual econiche: to create an environment in which not only negative criticism but also the positive creation of ideas, and the development of rationality, are truly inspired. [207]

In seeking more effective arrangements of our intellectual life and institutions we want to balance carefully the goal of increasing lethality to incorrect memes with the goal of encouraging the proliferation of new attempts at describing the world. We will need a mix of fora and institutions. In some of them, while we will want criticism to be thorough and accessible, we may not want it to be instant. Intellectual spaces are often needed where embryonic ideas can be developed without being strangled at birth.13 Applying this to electronic fora, we see the need both for a "safe haven" such as the main Extropians e-mail list14, and for unrestricted spaces (such as alt.extropians or a new critical-essay list) where the basics can be debated. Perhaps a critical essay list modeled on the current Exi-Essay list would be an ideal critical forum, the required essay format eliminating personal disputes, insults, and ad hominem digs that infest regular lists, and promoting detailed, thoughtful responses.

I leave aside many other areas of our intellectual lives in which we should consider how to optimally balance vigorous criticism with the flowering of new memetic creations. I will conclude with a few suggested cognitive strategies for promoting openness to criticism and revision in ourselves and in others. When we are corrected by others, or realize for ourselves that we erred, many of us exclaim, or think implicitly or explicitly things like: "Oh shit!" "What an idiot I am!" "Now I'll look stupid." Such responses not only make us feel bad, they discourage us from openness to criticism by making a negative assessment of its results. Instead, let's apply a dose of dynamically optimistic thinking, substituting responses along the lines of "Great! I'm a little bit wiser!" or "Thank you! Now I understand the world better than before" or "I did well to listen and learn to that criticism of a belief I hold dear." Be lavish in your praise of yourself for willingness to seriously entertain criticisms of cherished beliefs, especially when the critic has an obnoxious style. As suggested by the Principle of Dynamic Optimism, tie your self-esteem to your determination to advance and reevaluate, not to having to be right.

These cognitive strategies can be applied to other people to encourage their openness to criticism. Be generous with your praise when participants admit error or simply exhibit genuine respect for criticism, especially when the discussion takes place in a public forum. Not only will this reinforce that person's rationality, it will foster the same attitude in observers, and elicit a tit-for-tat response to your own benefit. Avoid attacks on the person rather than on their arguments ad hominem attacks annoy people and close them to criticism. Try giving respect to discussants even if you doubt that they deserve it. Finally, embed your criticisms within appreciative recognition of shared assumptions, areas of commonality, and boldness of conjecture even if the conjecture doesn't stand up.


In this paper I have sought to convey the essence of the pancritical conception of what it is to be a rationalist, and to show why this conception should be especially appealing to we who profess extropic values, practices, and goals in our lives. The applications of PCR suggested here are meant merely to be a preliminary sketch, an overture to a continuing development that I hope to see unfold at future EXTRO sessions, in the pages of Extropy and Exponent, on the various ExI e-mail fora, in local Extropian meetings, in each Nexus establishment, and in every aspect of our lives. Let us, as Extropians, continue to lead the way in seeking to hone our rationality, deepen our wisdom, and augment our intellects. If -- as the Biblical story suggests -- it is evil to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to attain rationality and critical thought, let us gorge ourselves. If religion brands rationality as sinful then, in Nietzsche's words, let us become better and more evil!


Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (Penguin Books, 1983; Originally published by Victor Gollancz, 1936, revised 1946).

William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat To Commitment (Open Court, 2nd Edition, 1984).

Donald T. Campbell, "Unjustified Variation and Selective Variation in Scientific Discovery", in F. J. Ayala and T. Dobzhansky, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Macmillan, 1974).

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

Kai Hahlweg & C.A. Hooker, eds. (1989). Issues in Evolutionary Epistemology. (State Univ. of N.Y. Press, 1989). Includes "Self-Organization: A New Approach to Evolutionary Epistemology" by Wolfgang Krohn & Gunter Kuppers.

Friedrich A. Hayek, "Kinds of Rationalism", ch.5 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (University of Chicago Press, 1967).

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

David Miller, The Possibility of Empirical Science (Open Court, forthcoming 1994).

Mark Miller, Dean Tribble, Marc Steigler, and Ravi Pandya "The Open Society and Its Media", in Extropy #12 (Vol.l.6 No.1): First Quarter 1994 (Extropy Institute).

Max More, "The Extropian Principles v.2.5" in Extropy #11 (Vol.5, No.1): Second Half 1993 (Extropy Institute).

Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934, Hutchinson Group 1959, revised 1980).

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, 4th edition 1972).

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.2: Hegel and Marx, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1945

John L. Pollock, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (Rowman and Littlefield, 1986).

W. V. Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in From a Logical Point of View (Harvard University Press, 1953).

Gerard Radnitsky & W.W. Bartley, III, eds. (1987). Evolutionary Epistemology, Theory of Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge. (Open Court.)

Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New American Library, 1961).

Morton White, Religion, Politics and the Higher Learning (Harvard University Press, 1959).


1 William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat to Commitment (Open Court, 1984).

2 I borrow this phrase from Robert Anton Wilson.

3 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New American Library, 1961), section 6.

4 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.2, p.225 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1945).

5 For a clear overview of the various kinds of coherence theories, see John L. Pollock, Contemporary Theories of Knowledge (Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey, 1986).

6 White, Religion, Politics and the Higher Learning (Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard University Press,1959), p.48.

7 Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic.

8 Pancritical rationalism does not actually contend to be a full epistemology, saying nothing about the means of acquiring information and leaving open questions about precisely how to effectively criticize ideas. PCR is intended as a conception of rationality, or of what it is to be a rationalist.

9 Bartley may have conceived this parallel due to his enormous familiarity with Friedrich Hayek's work on spontaneous orders and types of rationalism.

10 According to Bartley there are only three metacontexts:

(1) The metacontext of true belief or justification philosophy. This metacontext seeks to justify or defend positions and contexts.

(2) The oriental metacontext of nonattachment. This aims to detach from positions and contexts.

(3) The metacontext of fallibilism, or of pancritical rationalism. This aims to create and to improve positions and contexts.

11 See "The Open Society and Its Media" by Miller, Tribble, Steigler, and Pandya in Extropy Vo.l.6 No.1 (First Quarter 1994). True hypertext provides features such as hyperlinks, transclusion, and detectors.

12 Bartley's term.

13 Paul Feyerabend (in Against Method) overemphasizes variation, claims Bartley, while Popper overemphasizes selection.

14 extropians-request@extropy.org The Essay List can be joined by sending mail to exi-essay-request@extropy.org

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