Monday, April 23, 2007

JARS: "Nyquist Contra Rand, Part II" by F. Seddon

Those who wish to read Fred Seddon's reply to my response to his original review of my book are advised to locate a copy of the Fall 2007 edition of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and read it for themselves. I will not attempt to summarize it here. I merely wish to respond to one of Seddon's objections. As with his original review of my book, Seddon demonstrates a wanton blindness to the subtleties of my position vis-a-vis Rand and Objectivism. "[Nyquist] thinks Rand and the Objectivists limit logic to deductive logic," Seddon pontificates, "and the triumphantly claims that some modern sciences have proven that 'Most practical knowledge ... is based on generalizations drawn from experience,' that is, on induction." Seddon falls into just the sort of special pleading and word twisting that is more befitting an ambulance chasing lawyer than a philosopher. Instead of trying to understand my point, he only wishes to distort it for his own purposes, so he can evade facing up to the issues I raise. That is what he does with the phrase "generalizations drawn from experience," which he equates not merely with induction, but, by implication, with just the sort of induction advocated by Rand, Peikoff, and Kelley! Never mind that induction, except in a very loose sense of the word that surely would be opposed by Rand and Peikoff, has little to do with generalizations. Induction is a reasoning or inference from the particular to universal. The confusion arises because often the word general is used instead of universal, but it is a mistake to confound the terms general and generalization. The so-called problem of induction would not arise for a mere generalization, because no generalization can be refuted by a single observation. If I say that swans are generally white, that is very different from saying that all swans are white. The observation of a black or a purple swan won't refute the notion that swans are generally white, because generalizations are not universal. They allow for exceptions. But once you grant exceptions, you're no longer in the realm of inductive "logic." Can anyone imagine, for example, Rand or Peikoff advocating the view the laws of nature are only "generally" true, that, in other words, there exist exceptions to them? And so Seddon is merely conflating the term generalization with the term universal and thus basing his whole argument on an ambiguity of language.

Yet this is not the least of it. If Seddon had been attentive to the full context of the passage quoted, particularly what had been written earlier about unconscious knowledge, he should have understood that little if any reasoning takes place when people form the generalizations that make up what I called practical knowledge; that such generalizations are often made intuitively, without conscious direction, from the innermost reaches of the mind's unconscious database. This, in and of itself, makes the whole issue of induction irrelevant. Rand's reason, even when applied to the homely generalizations of everyday life, could be as inductivist as Seddon or anyone else pleases; that still would not allow Rand's empirically unsubstantiated claim that "Reason is man's only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge" to pass muster. If people can gain knowledge intuitively, without direct conscious thinking at all, then the Randian view that only "reason" leads to knowledge becomes unacceptable.

In the greater scheme of things, these technical arguments about the role of reason and "induction" in the Randian epistemology are of little relevance and are only brought up by Seddon to throw sand in our eyes. The real point at issue, which I have raised again and again and which Seddon sedulously evades, is the issue of evidence. Rand made any number of statements about matters of fact concerning human nature, human cognition, and social interaction. Many of these statements are highly controversial, such as man is a being of self-made soul or man's emotional and cognitive mechanisms are blank at birth. Yet Rand provided no evidence for these controversial statements of fact. None whatever! And neither does Seddon. There may be a very good reason for this. Perhaps the lack of evidence stems from the fact that these assertions are not true!

4 comments:

Michael Prescott said...

>Induction is a reasoning or inference from the particular to universal. The confusion arises because often the word general is used instead of universal, but it is a mistake to confound the terms general and generalization. The so-called problem of induction would not arise for a mere generalization, because no generalization can be refuted by a single observation.

That's a fascinating point. Now, I'm probably betraying my simplemindedness here, but given what I just quoted, couldn't we essentially "solve" the problem of induction just by defining induction as "a reasoning or inference from the particular to the general"?

After all, we can never actually know a universal because we would have to be omniscient to be sure there were no exceptions. The best we can possibly do is assert a generalization. In practice, this is all that careful thinkers are willing to do, anyway (at least outside the realms of mathematics and semantics). Even the "laws of nature" are understood to be general principles that may admit of exceptions if we go back far enough in time (to the Big Bang) or accelerate close to the speed of light, etc.

Why don't philosophers simply drop the fiction that anyone can know a universal truth, and instead concentrate on clarifying the rules of inference that pertain to valid generalizations? This would seem more productive than rehashing the "problem of universals" forever.

Or have I missed something painfully obvious?

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg:
>In the greater scheme of things, these technical arguments about the role of reason and "induction" in the Randian epistemology are of little relevance and are only brought up by Seddon to throw sand in our eyes.

I really don't know what Seddon is trying to achieve, other than a confused defence of someone he deeply admires. It just makes him - and her - look even more foolish.

Daniel Barnes said...

Michael asks:
>couldn't we essentially "solve" the problem of induction just by defining induction as "a reasoning or inference from the particular to the general"?

Well, that would still be illogical. It would in the character of a guess or imaginative leap based on particular facts, not a strictly rational conclusion. (Not that that is a bad thing, just it worries some people!)

>Why don't philosophers simply drop the fiction that anyone can know a universal truth, and instead concentrate on clarifying the rules of inference that pertain to valid generalizations? This would seem more productive than rehashing the "problem of universals" forever.

Popper wrote that what is needed is not some fabled source of "absolute truth", but standards of criticism. That's effectively what you're talking about.

gregnyquist said...

Micheal: "Now, I'm probably betraying my simplemindedness here, but given what I just quoted, couldn't we essentially 'solve' the problem of induction just by defining induction as 'a reasoning or inference from the particular to the general'?

Well, that is certainly a solution of sorts, but you would immediately run into problems with what to do with scientific hypotheses that had been refuted. Unless they had been overwhelming refuted, they would have the same status as hypotheses that had not been refuted and are currently regarded as true. Moreover, a scientific law that is true only generally is not of much use, because we tend to use scientific laws in a way that expect and demand universality. Could we have sent a man to the moon if we thought that Newtonian physics was only generally true, that there existed important exceptions to the laws of gravitation? It's important, as well, not to transform our ignorance into a kind of metaphysics. Just because we are not omniscient and can never be absolutely certain that any assumed universal law is in fact universal doesn't mean that universal laws don't exist and that we shouldn't try our best to figure out what they are. To use generalizations as a fig leaf to hide our cognitive limitations would be a kind of epistemological cowardice.