Episode Fifty-Four: Reason Is Dependent On The Senses

  • Welcome to Episode Fifty-Four of Lucretius Today. I am your host Cassius, and together with my panelists from the EpicureanFriends.com forum, we'll walk you through the six books of Lucretius' poem, and discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. Be aware that none of us are professional philosophers, and everyone here is a self-taught Epicurean. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book, "Epicurus and His Philosophy" by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt.

    For anyone who is not familiar with our podcast, please check back to Episode One for a discussion of our goals and our ground rules. If you have any question about that, please be sure to contact us at Epicureanfriends.com for more information.

    In today's podcast we will discuss how reason is dependent upon the senses.

    Latin Lines 469 -521

    Munro Notes

    469-521 if a man teaches that nothing can be known, how does be know that? how distinguish between knowing and not knowing? on the truth of the senses all reasoning depends, which must be false if they are false: nor is one sense more certain than another; all being equally true; nor is the same sense at one time more certain than at another: all reasoning, nay life itself would at once come to an end, if the senses are not to be trusted; as in any building, if the rule and square are wry, every part will be crooked and unstable, so all reasoning must be false, if the senses on which it is grounded are false.

    Brown 1743

    Lastly, if anyone thinks that he knows nothing, he cannot be sure that he knows this, when he confesses that he knows nothing at all. I shall avoid disputing with such a trifler, who perverts all things, and like a tumbler with his head prone to the earth, can go no otherwise than backwards. And yet allow that he knows this, I would ask (since he had nothing before to lead him into such a knowledge) whence he had the notion what it was to know, or not to know; what it was that gave him an idea of Truth or Falsehood, and what taught him to distinguish between doubt and certainty?

    But you will find that knowledge of truth is originally derived from the senses, nor can the senses be contradicted, for whatever is able by the evidence of an opposite truth to convince the senses of falsehood, must be something of greater certainty than they. But what can deserve greater credit than the senses require from us? Will reason, derived from erring sense, claim the privilege to contradict it? Reason - that depends wholly upon the senses,which unless you allow to be true, all reason must be false. Can the ears correct the eyes? Or the touch the ears? Or will taste confute the touch? Or shall the nose or eyes convince the rest? This, I think, cannot be, for every sense has a separate faculty of its own, each has its distinct powers; and therefore an object, soft or hard, hot or cold, must necessarily be distinguished as soft or hard, hot or cold, by one sense separately, that is, the touch. It is the sole province of another, the sight, to perceive the colors of things, and the several properties that belong to them. The taste has a distinct office. Odors particularly affect the smell, and sound the ears. And therefore it cannot be that one sense should correct another, nor can the same sense correct itself, since an equal credit ought to be given to each; and therefore whatever the senses at any time discover to us must be certain.

    And though reason is not able to assign a cause why an object that is really four-square when near, should appear round when seen at a distance; yet, if we cannot explain this difficulty, it is better to give any solution, even a false one, than to deliver up all Certainty out of our power, to break in upon our first principle of belief, and tear up all foundations upon which our life and security depend. For not only all reason must be overthrown, but life itself must be immediately extinguished, unless you give credit to your senses. These direct you to fly from a precipice and other evils of this sort which are to be avoided, and to pursue what tends to your security. All therefore is nothing more than an empty parade of words that can be offered against the certainty of sense.

    Lastly, as in a building, if the principle rule of the artificer be not true, if his line be not exact, or his level bear in to the least to either side, every thing must needs be wrong and crooked, the whole fabric must be ill-shaped, declining, hanging over, leaning and irregular, so that some parts will seem ready to fall and tumble down, because the whole was at first disordered by false principles. So the reason of things must of necessity be wrong and false which is founded upon a false representation of the senses.

    Munro 1886

    Again if a man believe that nothing is known, he knows not whether this even can be known, since he admits he knows nothing. I will therefore decline to argue the case against him who places himself with head where his feet should be. And yet granting that he knows this, I would still put this question, since he has never yet seen any truth in things, whence he knows what knowing and not knowing severally are, and what it is that has produced the knowledge of the true and the false and what has proved the doubtful to differ from the certain.

    You will find that from the senses first has proceeded the knowledge of the true and the false and that the senses cannot be refuted. For that which is of itself to be able to refute things false by true things must from the nature of the case be proved to have the higher certainty. Well then, what must fairly be accounted of higher certainty than sense? Shall reason founded on false sense be able to contradict them, wholly founded as it is on the senses? And if they are not true, then all reason as well is rendered false. Or shall the ears be able to take the eyes to task, or the touch the ears? Again shall the taste call in question this touch, or the nostrils refute or the eyes controvert it? Not so, I guess; for each apart has its own distinct office, each its own power; and therefore we must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which are conjoined with color. Taste too has its faculty apart; smells spring from one source, sounds from another. It must follow therefore that any one sense cannot confute any other. No nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times. What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.

    And if reason shall be unable to explain away the cause why things which close at hand were square, at a distance looked round, it yet is better, if you are at a loss for the reason, to state erroneously the causes of each shape than to let slip from your grasp on any side things manifest and ruin the groundwork of belief and wrench up all the foundations on which rest life and existence. For not only would all reason give way, life itself would at once fall to the ground, unless you choose to trust the senses and shun precipices and all things else of this sort that are to be avoided, and to pursue the opposite things. All that host of words then be sure is quite unmeaning which has been drawn out in array against the senses.

    Once more, as in a building, if the rule first applied is wry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be wry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, others do fall, ruined all by the first erroneous measurements; so too all reason of things must needs prove to you distorted and false, which is founded on false senses.

    Bailey 1921

    Again, if any one thinks that nothing is known, he knows not whether that can be known either, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against him then I will refrain from joining issue, who plants himself with his head in the place of his feet. And yet were I to grant that he knows this too, yet I would ask this one question; since he has never before seen any truth in things, whence does he know what is knowing, and not knowing each in turn, what thing has begotten the concept of the true and the false, what thing has proved that the doubtful differs from the certain?

    You will find that the concept of the true is begotten first from the senses, and that the senses cannot be gainsaid. For something must be found with a greater surety, which can of its own authority refute the false by the true. Next then, what must be held to be of greater surety than sense? Will reason, sprung from false sensation, avail to speak against the senses, when it is wholly sprung from the senses? For unless they are true, all reason too becomes false. Or will the ears be able to pass judgement on the eyes, or touch on the ears? or again will the taste in the mouth refute this touch; will the nostrils disprove it, or the eyes show it false? It is not so, I trow. For each sense has its faculty set apart, each its own power, and so it must needs be that we perceive in one way what is soft or cold or hot, and in another the diverse colours of things, and see all that goes along with colour. Likewise, the taste of the mouth has its power apart; in one way smells arise, in another sounds. And so it must needs be that one sense cannot prove another false. Nor again will they be able to pass judgement on themselves, since equal trust must at all times be placed in them. Therefore, whatever they have perceived on each occasion, is true.

    And if reason is unable to unravel the cause, why those things which close at hand were square, are seen round from a distance, still it is better through lack of reasoning to be at fault in accounting for the causes of either shape, rather than to let things clear seen slip abroad from your grasp, and to assail the grounds of belief, and to pluck up the whole foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reasoning fall away; life itself too would collapse straightway, unless you chose to trust the senses, and avoid headlong spots and all other things of this kind which must be shunned, and to make for what is opposite to these. Know, then, that all this is but an empty store of words, which has been drawn up and arrayed against the senses.

    Again, just as in a building, if the first ruler is awry, and if the square is wrong and out of the straight lines, if the level sags a whit in any place, it must needs be that the whole structure will be made faulty and crooked, all awry, bulging, leaning forwards or backwards, and out of harmony, so that some parts seem already to long to fall, or do fall, all betrayed by the first wrong measurements; even so then your reasoning of things must be awry and false, which all springs from false senses.

  • The Lucretius Today podcast we are recording tomorrow contains what is perhaps the most clear statement of the most important aspect of Epicurean Philosophy in regard to knowledge and the relationship of reason to the senses. Please let us know in this thread if you have any comments you would like us to consider when we discuss this in the podcast.

  • In connection with this episode we should keep in mind this paragraph from Chapter X of Diogenes Laertius:


    31. They reject dialectic as superfluous; holding that in their inquiries the physicists should be content to employ the ordinary terms for things.[43] Now in The Canon Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth; the Epicureans generally make perceptions of mental presentations[44] to be also standards. His own statements are also to be found in the Summary addressed to Herodotus and in the Sovran Maxims. Every sensation, he says, is devoid of reason and incapable of memory; for neither is it self-caused nor, regarded as having an external cause, can it add anything thereto or take anything therefrom. 32. Nor is there anything which can refute sensations or convict them of error: one sensation cannot convict another and kindred sensation, for they are equally valid; nor can one sensation refute another which is not kindred but heterogeneous, for the objects which the two senses judge are not the same;[45] nor again can reason refute them, for reason is wholly dependent on sensation; nor can one sense refute another, since we pay equal heed to all. And the reality of separate perceptions guarantees[46] the truth of our senses. But seeing and hearing are just as real as feeling pain. Hence it is from plain facts that we must start when we draw inferences about the unknown.[47] For all our notions are derived from perceptions, either by actual contact or by analogy, or resemblance, or composition, with some slight aid from reasoning. And the objects presented to mad-men[48] and to people in dreams are true, for they produce effects – i.e. movements in the mind – which that which is unreal never does.

    For the definition of "Dialectic" here is the 1911 Encyclopaedia Brittannica:


    DIALECTIC, or Dialectics (from Gr. διάλεκτος, discourse, debate; ἡ διαλεκτική, sc. τέχνη, the art of debate), a logical term, generally used in common parlance in a contemptuous sense for verbal or purely abstract disputation devoid of practical value. According to Aristotle, Zeno of Elea "invented" dialectic, the art of disputation by question and answer, while Plato developed it metaphysically in connexion with his doctrine of "Ideas" as the art of analysing ideas in themselves and in relation to the ultimate idea of the Good (Repub. vii.). The special function of the so-called "Socratic dialectic" was to show the inadequacy of popular beliefs. Aristotle himself used "dialectic," as opposed to "science," for that department of mental activity which examines the presuppositions lying at the back of all the particular sciences. Each particular science has its own subject matter and special principles (ἴδιαι ἀρχαί) on which the superstructure of its special discoveries is based. The Aristotelian dialectic, however, deals with the universal laws (κοιναὶ ἀρχαί) of reasoning, which can be applied to the particular arguments of all the sciences. The sciences, for example, all seek to define their own species; dialectic, on the other hand, sets forth the conditions which all definitions must satisfy whatever their subject matter. Again, the sciences all seek to educe general laws; dialectic investigates the nature of such laws, and the kind and degree of necessity to which they can attain. To this general subject matter Aristotle gives the name "Topics" (τόποι, loci, communes loci). "Dialectic" in this sense is the equivalent of "logic." Aristotle also uses the term for the science of probable reasoning as opposed to demonstrative reasoning (ἀποδεικτική). The Stoics divided λογική (logic) into rhetoric and dialectic, and from their time till the end of the middle ages dialectic was either synonymous with, or a part of, logic.

    In modern philosophy the word has received certain special meanings. In Kantian terminology Dialektik is the name of that portion of the Kritik d. reinen Vernunft in which Kant discusses the impossibility of applying to "things-in-themselves" the principles which are found to govern phenomena. In the system of Hegel the word resumes its original Socratic sense, as the name of that intellectual process whereby the inadequacy of popular conceptions is exposed. Throughout its history, therefore, "dialectic" has been connected with that which is remote from, or alien to, unsystematic thought, with the a priori, or transcendental, rather than with the facts of common experience and material things.

    Here is the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica on "Logic" (a very long article)

    Here is the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica on "Reason."

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Episode Fifty-Four: Reason Is Dependent On The Senses [Pre-Production]” to “Episode Fifty-Four: Reason Is Dependent On The Senses”.
  • Episode Fifty-Four of the Lucretius Today Podcast is now available. In today's podcast we will discuss how mistaken judgments caused by illusions should not be considered to be the fault of the senses, but of the mind. Our text will be from Latin Lines: 324- 468. Thanks to Charles for reading today's text.

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