In Retreat to Commitment, Bartley characterises a pancritical rationalist as one who,
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.
Working from this characterisation, some have alleged that pancritical rationalism has analogous logical flaws to justificationism. In particular, holding every position open to criticism is said to entail similar paradoxes as demanding that every position should be justified. Consider the following example:
(A) Every position is open to criticism
(B) (A) is open to criticism
Suppose that we try and subject (B) to criticism. If (B) is false, then (A) is false. However, if (A) is falsified in light of criticism of (B), then (A) is open to criticism after all. So any successful criticism of (B) appears to imply that (B) is true. Therefore, (B) is uncriticisable.
Bartley presented and responded to this argument in the appendix of the second edition of Retreat to Commitment; David Miller also tackled this argument in Critical Rationalism: Restatement and Defence. I hesitate to criticise either of these counterarguments here, because it has been a long time since I have read either book, and I do not have my copies available for reference. However, I do recall being unsatisfied with both Bartley and Miller’s responses to the problem and have often returned to it.
Although the paradox contains a crude, if not altogether inaccurate, summary of pancritical rationalism, the following version of the paradox appears closer to what critics have in mind.
(A) Every proposition is possibly false
(B) (A) is possibly false
This is more interesting, because it brings to light an implicit assumption: “openness to criticism” is interpreted to mean possible falsity. The critic might have just pointed out that tautologies cannot be false rather than propose such a misleading paradox, because the criticism amounts to much the same: necessary truths can’t be false (duh!), so how can everything be open to criticism?
The error critics make is to assume that pancritical rationalism, with its radical scepticism, must deny the existence of necessary truths. While pancritical rationalists do emphasise that our ability to identify necessary truths is prone to error, they do not deny the existence of necessary truths. Necessary truths are a corollary of logic, and criticism is impossible without logic. Here is Bartley on the matter:
The idea of testing and revising in the light of tests–more simply–the idea of critical argument, presupposes the notion ofdeducibility, i.e. the idea of retransmission of falsity from conclusions to premises and, ipso facto, of the transmission of truth from premises to conclusion … the idea that a set of beliefs might be brought “in closer correspondence with reality” by abandoning logic is mistaken, since the tool of logic is needed to learn about reality … Logic, then, cannot be part of the totality that is brought under test.
So how can everything, including logic and its necessary truths, be open to criticism? To answer this challenge one must recognise a distinction between revision and criticism in this context.
While there are many versions of Christianity, they all have two basic tenets: (1) the God of Abraham exists, and (2) Jesus Christ died for our sins. If one removes one or both of these propositions, then what remains is no longer Christian. These tenets could be said to place logical limits on the revision of Christianity in the light of critical argument. However, Christians may continue to hold these tenets open to critical evaluation; they may be willing to entertain criticisms intended to argue them out of their Christianity.
The situation is analogous for the pancritical rationalist. Logic itself places limits on revisability, because revising in the light of criticism must presuppose logic. One can no more reject logic (and its necessary truths) and be a pancritical rationalist than one can reject Jesus Christ and be a Christian. However, one may still be willing to seriously consider arguments against logic and rationality and perhaps embrace irrationalism; that people can be moved by such arguments is well documented.
The difference between the cases of Christianity and pancritical rationalism is that one does not reject logical principles because, like one might reject Christian tenets, they are believed to be false. Seeming paradoxes and contradictions in the rational position itself may motivate the rejection of logic, but such criteria have little importance once one has embraced irrationalism. Thus, the rejection of logic and rationality is not just a rejection of particular beliefs about logic, it is an abandonment of the goal of striving for knowledge and understanding of the world.
Hopefully this post suffices to explain how one be a radical sceptic who believes in necessary truths, and how logic can be both unrevisable and criticisable simultaneously. The apparent “pancritical paradox”presented above fails to account for these subtle distinctions, and when they are brought to light the errors in the criticism become clear: pancritical rationalism continues to pass its own tests.
Any thoughts? Part of me suspect this is what Bartley was saying all along and I just never “got it” before, but I only have access to one chapter in Retreat to Commitment at the moment.