Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Shorter ARCHN: Introduction

A series of handy short summaries of the main arguments of ARCHN for those unfamiliar with the book. For more detail, you can read ARCHN online here:

Introduction:

Despite Ayn Rand’s obvious importance both as a controversial polemicist and as an American cultural figure, her philosophy of Objectivism has largely escaped the scrutiny of a genuinely intelligent and penetrating criticism. While Objectivists ascribe this to the soundness and irrefutability of Rand’s ideas, in fact Rand was a surprisingly sloppy and maladroit thinker, some of whose most important doctrines are based on little more than a play on words. Even when her conclusions are correct, she is often right for the wrong reasons.

As a result, there is quite a bit of truth to Objectivism, but it is so inextricably mixed with falsehoods and errors that it is in many respects a compendium of half-truths. Nonetheless, despite her non sequiturs, over-generalisations, incompetent formulations, pseudo-empirical references, and other bunglings, she should still be regarded as an important, and even great thinker. Many far more famous philosophers made equally egregious errors.

Rand was a brilliant polemicist and ingenious sophist; hence while her takes on issues from the problem of abortion to the problem of universals often sounded persuasive, they often concealed numerous logical and empirical shortcomings. I believe that Rand is either wrong or confused about many of the central issues of philosophy. She is wrong about the nature of man, the role of philosophy in history, about the validity of induction, about the absolute objectivity of values, about the feasibility of laissez-faire capitalism, and about the nature of romanticism; and she is confused about philosophical idealism, consciousness, the relation between ideas and things, the psychology of altruism.

ARCHN sets out to criticize Rand from both an empirical and a logical point of view. While Objectivism officially adopts the view that all knowledge comes from experience, I will argue that in fact it operates in a highly rationalistic fashion, deliberately avoiding empirical reality and seeking to reduce the universe to a handful of rhetorical constructions.

(Summary of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" by Greg Nyquist, Introduction)

60 comments:

Ralph C Whaley MD said...

Scolding is not an argument. Existence exists. Your mind is your only means of knowing it. Sense perception is your contact with reality and reason the faculty of every human for processing the data of perception. Concept formation is the means of gaining knowledge. Man has used it since he became man and Ayn Rans's most important contribution to civilization in my opinion was her identification and explanation of the process of concept formation. Every aspect of he philosophy of Objectivism has been thoroughly validated in her writings and no one has ever identified a contradiction in any of her writings. A long list of disagreements or criticisms does not invalidate truth. The solution to your problems is simple. All you have to do is think.

Anonymous said...

For the casual reader: This blog and the book he is trying to sell is an attempt to profit off of Ayn Rand. A close reading of his blog shows that he has not read Rand to any clear degree, and his style is to make broad brushed attacks on specific items, without philosophical support, other than (paraphrasing): "others did not say that", and attempts to contradict what he does not want to understand. One long polemic. Sounds like a 'whiner' at work. Please read Ayn Rand's work directly, first.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ralph C Whaley:
>Ayn Rand's most important contribution to civilization in my opinion was her identification and explanation of the process of concept formation.

Hi Ralph,

Thank you for your comments. I strongly disagree, however. I have studied Rand's theory of concept formation closely, and regard it as thoroughly mistaken. True, it seems impressive at first, but on close examination you discover much of it rests on simply using confusing and self-contradictory terminology, such as oxymorons and other fudges. Far from being profound, it seems rather off-the-cuff and carelessly thought through - her first steps in her theory even violate the Law of Identity! I know you will find this hard to believe, but I am happy to make my case through debate and verbatim extracts from Rand's work.

>Every aspect of he philosophy of Objectivism has been thoroughly validated in her writings and no one has ever identified a contradiction in any of her writings.

I assure you, her writings are highly contradictory. Would you like some examples?

Daniel Barnes said...

Shorter Anonymous:

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

;-)

gregnyquist said...

Anonymous: "This blog and the book he is trying to sell is an attempt to profit off of Ayn Rand."

It is curious that apologists of Objectivism, a philosophy that so insistently stresses the critical importance of logic, should stumble into logical fallacies right from the start. The book and the blog are an attempt, we are told, to profit off of Ayn Rand! This is plainly an ad hominem attack. But it is worse than that: it is factually absurd. No one interested in making money would bother writing a book about Rand, particularly one from a critical angle. The only possible motive for a critic of Rand is love of truth and the pure joy of exposing philosophical fraud.

"A close reading of his blog shows that he has not read Rand to any clear degree, and his style is to make broad brushed attacks on specific items, without philosophical support."

Without citing examples, this can only be regarded as mere unsubstantiated assertion. But the method of unsubstantiated assertion was perfected by Rand herself, like when she declared, without offering a shred of empirical evidence, that man is a being of self-made soul, or when she defined a concept as a mental integration of two or more units, implying thereby that no concept can be formed without experiencing two manifestations of the conceptualized object of knowledge.

gregnyquist said...

Ralph C Whaley: "Every aspect of [Rand's] philosophy of Objectivism has been thoroughly validated in her writings and no one has ever identified a contradiction in any of her writings."

Unfortunately, this is absolute nonsense, as there are all sorts of unsubstantiated assertions made throughout Rand's writings. Her theory of human nature, for example, is not only unsubstantiated, but it contradicts the latest scientific evidence accumulated by psychology, neuroscience, biology, and cognitive science. As far as the claim about no contradictions being identified, even if true (and it is not), it would be quite irrelevant. A logical system based on false premises would still be false, even if no contradictions could be found in it. Objectivists love reducing criticisms of Rand's ideas to a question of logic, because then they don't have to confront the more serious problem, which involves the question of empirical evidence. And since most of Rand's logical errors involve ambiguities in her terms and phrases, arguments about contradictions in Rand almost inevitably degenerate into scholastic wranglings about the definitions of words. Why bother with such sterile and futile exercises in logic chopping when one can merely point to the evidence of leading scholars and scientists and say: "Rand's assertions about human nature, history, and cognition are at odds with the evidence!"

David said...

What is it with the Objectivist who only comment on the Introduction (or in this case, a summary of the Introduction) without bothering to read the rest of the book (or its summaries)? I recall that Amazon.com book review exchange where the Objectivist argued that he didn't to need Nyquist's ideas to know what they were and then accused him of being some sort of crypto-Hegelian.

[Aside: The whole exchange was hilarious because the person clearly had no idea what Hegel's ideas actually were and couldn't point to anything in Nyquist's book that could be described as Hegelian. He was just using "Hegelian" in a manner analogous to how Marxists use the term "bourgeois" - as a perjorative coded with a negative connotation for the initiated but devoid of of actual denotative meaning.]

C'mon, folks! If you really want people to take Rand's ideas seriously, if you really think that the world would be a better place if more people were Objectivists, you're going to have actually engage the ideas they hold if you're going to get them to change. And that means enaging and refuting criticisms of Rand's philosophy.

Own up and man up, Objectivists!

David said...

Oh, just for the hell of it, let's unpack this:

Anonymous said, "This blog and the book he is trying to sell is an attempt to profit off of Ayn Rand."

Then why does Nyquist provide a link to read the book FOR FREE on-line? Logically, if this book were an "attempt to profit off of Ayn Rand" he would not do this. Characterizing him as a profit seeking, second-hander amounts to an ad hominem attack - and with the facts indicating that Nyquist isn't not trying to "profit off of Ayn Rand," it's not a very effective one.

Anonymous continues, "A close reading of his blog shows that he has not read Rand to any clear degree, and his style is to make broad brushed attacks on specific items, without philosophical support other than (paraphrasing): 'others did not say that', and attempts to contradict what he does not want to understand."

First, I must ask: Do you know the difference between a book and a blog? Perhaps you should draw up a chart identifying the essential, defining characteristic of each medium as well as any Conceptual Common Denomenators. Hopefully after completing said exercise you will see why this angle of attack falls short of its mark.

Allow me another analogy to help you along ... you might want to draw up a chart for this too: It's like criticising one of Dostoyevsky's short stories because it lacks the character development of one his novels.

As for the oblique (intentionally so?) paraphrase of the Nyquist's and Barnes' refutations rest on "...others did not say that...", it ignores WHO those others are, WHAT exactly they said, and WHY and HOW it refutes one or more of Rand's ideas. That is, your criticism is so paraphrased, so denuded of useful content that it is useless as a means of persuasion.

I gather that you're trying to say that they commit the fallacy of "arguing from authority," but arguing from authority is only a fallacy is the authority being used for support isn't an authority on the subject at hand or if new information or arguments have superceded that of the authority in question.

If Nyquist and Barnes have been engaging illegitimately in argument from authority, and if you have closely read this blog, as you claim you have, then you could have easily given at least ONE specific example of Nyquist or Barnes doing this. Just ONE. If they're constantly engaging in "broad brushed attacks," it should have been easy to find one and debunk it. It wouldn't have taken up too much time or space and would have had a chance to persuade me to rethink my position on Nyquist's book.

Anonymous adds that Nyquist is attempting "to contradict what he does not want to understand."

Essentially, this is an ad hominem attack. You're implying that Nyquist lacks the honesty to truly engage Rand's ideas and you're offering no evidence for it. If my previous encounters with on-line Objectivists are any guide, your "reasoning" rests on the circular argument that if he had honestly engaged Rand's ideas, he'd be struck down by Rand's brilliance like a latter-day Saul on the road to Damascus, henceforth becoming an Objectivist himself, and never have written his book in the first place.

"One long polemic. Sounds like a 'whiner' at work. Please read Ayn Rand's work directly, first."

I've yet to see anything on the blog or in Nyquist's book that could be described as "whining." Sarcasm and snark? Definitely. Passionate criticism? Without a doubt. But no whining. What is there to whine about? Nyquist is simply doing what Rand wanted people to do - to take her ideas seriously. If you want people to take your ideas seriously, and then complain that they don't agree 100% with everything you say, then that's whining!

You claim to have closely read this blog. Then do youself (and us) a favor and closely read Nyquist's book (free! on-line!) and show us what Nyquist gets logically and factually wrong, explaining how it undermines his thesis. You will find that Nyquist is more than willing to engage Objectivists in criticisms of his book.

If you fear such engagement, maybe you can start your own blog called "Contra Ayn Rand Contra Human Qua Human Nature" or "ARCHNZapper" or something.

Daniel Barnes said...

David,

It's interesting, isn't it, how often we get these Objectors making these handwaving attacks. Yet when challenged, I rarely recall them backing themselves in extended debate. They tend to sidle off into the ether.

Tends to reinforce the impression that, as David Ramsay Steele says, "Objectivist doctrine is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics." Doesn't it?

Jay said...

First, let me state that I do plan on buying this book. The author has original things to say and I look forward to dissecting it in printed form, where it wont hurt my eyes ;)

That said, I have to put forth one early criticism. The book claims that reason is not truly man's means of survival, pointing as evidence to the survival of primitive men. I'm not sure if Rand herself ever faced this question, but because I'm smart and I can think for myself I will try to refute this.

Primitive men survived to the extent that they did use reason, which this book claims they did not do. Yes, instinct alone lead men to seek refuge in caves (when available) and cover his skin when it was cold outside. But it doesn't follow from this that they never used reason, or that this type of instinctual behavior alone is what sustained them. I think this error comes from a misunderstanding of reason and the evolution of reason.

The first primitive man to build a shelter used reason. He didn't call it reason, or believe himself to be virtuous for using it. But when he juggled simultaneously such facts as what the strongest materials are, where to find them, and how to cobble them together into a solid structure that shielded him from the elements, that was reason. Reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution. Instinct alone could not and did not produce that.

Yes, primitive people survived, but this is hardly the invalidation of Rand's emphasis on reason that the author claims. Primitive people survived to the extent that they used reason. That's why the average life expectancy was once 20 years old and why diseases we now regard as trivial used to kill us. As we evolved, we became more skilled at applying reason to solve our most difficult and seemingly intractable problems.

The book shoves all this aside by painting the picture that cavemen enjoyed the same stability and quality of life as we do now, saying in effect "reason didn't have much to do with it." I find that to be a mistaken view, and obviously so.

ken stauffer said...

I just finished reading your book. I posted a review on my blog. Thanks for the awsome work!

http://www.stauffercom.com/kjsblog/index.php?entry=entry071002-072917

Red Grant said...

To Mr.Nyquist:


You seem to have accomplished what I originally had in mind.

I'm going to be looking forward to reading your book.

p.s. I also liked your review of Vilfredo Pareto's Manual of Political Economy.

As for my political/economical views, I'm partial to Oswald Spengler, Pareto, Keynes, and Schumpter.


To Mr. Stauffer:

I, too, have wasted a few years of my life on Ayn Rand, but fortunately I'd had very extensive knowledge of history, and almost innate aptitude in logical thinking, which led to rejection of Objectivism on my own.

Red Grant said...

____________________________
The book claims that reason is not truly means of survival, pointing as evidence to the survival of primitive men. I'm not sure if Rand herself ever faced this question,... - jay
____________________________


Didn't Ayn Rand say that the savages of primitive tribes were at pre-cenceptual stage of development?

____________________________

The first primitive man to build a shelter used reason. He didn't call it reason, or believed himself to be virtuous for using it.

But when he juggled simultaneously such facts as what the strongest materials are, where to find them, and how to cobble them together into a solid structure that shielded him from the elements, that was reason. - jay
____________________________


Does this mean then you believe birds use reason to build nests?


____________________________

Instinct alone did not and could not produce that. - jay
____________________________


Do insects use reason to build nest/shelter?

or

do they use instinct to build nest/shelter?

Anonymous said...

No, that's why I used the qualifier

Reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution.

That's why we now build skyscrapers and even eco-friendly housing while birds still build nests. And even the earliest human shelters were more complex than birds' nests.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Red,

Nice to hear from you, thanks for your kind comments.

Red Grant said...

____________________________

Reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution. - jay
____________________________


How do you know it was reason?

Does this mean then you believe Ayn Rand was wrong to state that savages of primitive tribes were at pre-conceptual stage of development?

____________________________

That's why we now build skyscrapers and even eco-frienly housing while birds still build nests. - jay
____________________________


Actually, we've had eco-friendly housing long before skyscrapers.

Do you think a bird's nest doesn't qualify as eco-friendly?


____________________________

Even the earliest human shelters were more complex than birds' nests. - jay
____________________________


Wasn't the earliest human shelter a cave?

Do you think a cave was more complex than a bird's nest?

____________________________

The first primitive man to build a shelter used a reason. He didn't call it reason or believed himself to be virtuous for using it. - jay
____________________________


How do you know he didn't call it reason or believed himself to be virtuous for using it?

____________________________

Reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution.

That's why we now build skyscrapers and even eco-friendly housing while birds still build nests. - jay
____________________________


Does this mean then you believe that being able to build skyscrapers qualify as the proof that we use reason?

Didn't the Nazis build skyscraper as well?

Did the Nazis use reason to carry out Holocaust?



To Danie Barnes:

Same to you, as you know, most blogs (along with virtually all political forums), are total jokes.

This one seemed to be different.

JayCross said...

Didn't the Nazis build skyscraper as well?

Did the Nazis use reason to carry out Holocaust?


I don't know if Nazis built skyscrapers. I would imagine they contracted the work out, if they did. But yes, if they built skyscrapers of course they used reason to do so. There is no other way.

I fail to see how that carries over to the Holocaust though.

JayCross said...


Wasn't the earliest human shelter a cave?

Do you think a cave was more complex than a bird's nest?


I thought it was clear that we were discussing man-made shelters. No, caves are not more complex.

Red Grant said...

____________________________

Reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution. - jay
____________________________


How do you know it was reason?

Does this mean then you believe Ayn Rand was wrong to state that savages of primitive tribes were at pre-cenceptual stage of development?


____________________________

The first primitive man to build a shelter used a reason. He didn't call it reason or believed himself to be virtuous for using it. - jay
____________________________


How do you know he didn't call it reason or believed himself to be virtuous for using it?


____________________________

The reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution.

That's why we now build skyscrapers and even eco-friendly housing while birds still build nests. - jay
____________________________
____________________________

But, yes if they [Nazis] built skyscrapers of course they used reason to do so.

There is no other way. - jay
____________________________

____________________________

As we evolved we became more skilled at applying reason to solve our most difficult and seemingly intractable problems. - jay
____________________________


Is that why Holocaust happened? Because we had become more skilled at applying reason to solve our most difficult and seemingly intractable problems?

Did the Nazis use reason to carry out Holocaust?

JayCross said...

No, the Holocaust had absolutely nothing to do with using reason. I don't even see how you're drawing a connection. The need to exterminate millions of Jews and minorities was not an intractable problem that needed to be solved. It was just a brutal atrocity.

------

He didn't call it reason because language did not yet exist.

------

I don't know if primitive savages were in the pre-conceptual stage or not. They were certainly less intellectually developed than we are today.

Red Grant said...

____________________________

The reason as we were capable of employing it at that stage in our evolution. - jay
____________________________

How do you know it was reason?

____________________________

I don't know if primitive savages were in the pre-conceptual stage or not. They were certainly less intellectually developed than we are today. - jay
____________________________


Does this mean then you believe that it's possible that primitive savages were in the pre-conceptual stage of development?

____________________________

The first primitive man to build shelter used a reason.
He didn't believe himself to be virtuous for using it.
- jay
____________________________

How do you know he didn't believe himself to be virtuous for using it?

____________________________

No, the Holocaust had absolutely nothing to do with using reason. The need to exterminate millions of Jews and minorities was not an intractable problem that needed to be solved. - jay
____________________________

Did the Nazis carry out the Holocaust because they reasoned that exterminating millions of Jews and minorities was a solution needed for an intractable problem for them[the Nazis]?

Or

because the Nazis did not reason whether exterminating millions of Jews and minorities was a solution needed for an intractable problem for them[the Nazis] or not?

____________________________

As we evolved we became more skilled at applying reason to solve our most difficult and seemingly intractable problems. - jay
____________________________


Did the U.S. remove, rob, and kill the Natives of this continent during the Manifest Destiny period because we had become more skilled at applying reason to solve our most difficult and seemingly intractable problems for the U.S.?

Did the U.S. reason that robbing, removing, and killing the Natives of this continent was a solution needed for carrying out the Manifest Destiny?

or

did the U.S. not reason whether robbing, removing, and killing the Natives of this continent was a solution needed for carrying out the Manifest Destiny?

gregnyquist said...

Ken: "I just finished reading your book. I posted a review on my blog. Thanks for the awsome work!"

Nice review, Ken. Sorry I didn't notice it until now.

Red Grant: "I'm going to be looking forward to reading your book.
p.s. I also liked your review of Vilfredo Pareto's Manual of Political Economy."

The book's a bit longer than the review; hope you'll like it as much.

Red Grant said...

To jay:

the definition of reason per Ayn Rand

the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by men's senses

____________________________


To Mr.Nyquist:

It's very hard to get hold of that book.

Virtually none is available for sale, well unless one's willing to pay hundreds of dollars.

Luckily for me, the Creighton University has one copy so I'm reading it very carefully and methodically, so far Pareto pulls no punches.

How refreshing!

Db0 said...

Thanks for the summaries and for the site. A very good reference to find ammo against Objectivist arguments.

I especially enjoy watching Objectivists invariably flee from comment fields when they are no longer able to refute the arguments put against them

Btw, the book link does not work on the sidebar but I did find it here

Layne said...

Using "Jay's" logic, a squirrel who builds a nest in a tree possesses a human-like ability to reason.

Perhaps creatures who build shelters do so for similar reasons -- like "instinct."

lance said...

you're all missing the point. i know i'm going to get attacked here, because i don't have a copy of either book sitting before me, but i know ayn rand's philosophies are right more often than wrong, because most of them have worked to make my life better.

mr nyquist claims that rand thought only empirical experience produces knowledge or insight and then contradicted herself by being completely rationalistic. this is a misconception, because most of her arguments were about the value of logic and abstraction (epistimelogically anyway) and she often made claim that there was no dichotomy between mind and body, calling materialists (such as sartre) bodies without heads and idealist (like descartes) heads without bodies.

to an objectivist (as well as most neurologists) there is a healthy amount of both instinct and reason in a human being.

instinct creates desires and tendencies, while reason showed us how to fulfil them.

what about animals building shelters? they had LIMITED reasoning abilities. reason did not spontaneously generate in humans, we happened to evolve to a state where reason became our PRIMARY means of survival.

as a somewhat religious person, the only gripe i have is her complaint about altruism. it is good to help others. it is even good to put yourself out for others (she thought differently). but I agree that one should not destroy oneself wholesale for the sake of others (but who does?) this isn't what she meant by sacrifice (she thought even giving a penny without return benefit was sacrifice) but the only mistake she made was by defining sacrifice too strictly.

i also believe she judged immanuel kant too harshly...along with other libertarian philosophers (and the modern libertarian movement), but she was kind of a bitch, if you paid attention to her personal life.

but being a bitch didn't make her wrong. she was often right. time itself has proved atlas shrugged right. the jim taggarts are winning while the dagny's are taking in the *ahem* pocketbooks and every time it happens (clean air act, patriot act, cap and trade) the free people get the shaft (increased oil price, unqualified jail time, increased energy price).

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Lance

You're not going to get attacked. It sounds to me like you're using Rand the way we here at the ARCHNblog regularly recommend ie as a vague kind of inspiration to achieve and be productive, and to think for yourself.

This is fine, but has little to do with her actual intellectual doctrines, or Objectivism's so-called "fundamentals", which are by and large non-starters. This sense of inspiration, which is undeniable, is more to do with her rhetorical power than logical or empirical qualities of her arguments.

Michael Prescott said...

Lance, it sounds to me as if you're interpreting Objectivism in your own way. This is fine, but this blog is concerned with critiquing Objectivism as Rand and her top spokesmen have presented it.

I agree with you that humans have instincts and that (higher) animals have limited reasoning abilities. But Objectivism, as promulgated by Rand, Peikoff, et al, does not hold either of these positions. Rand believed there are no such things as instincts in human behavior, and that reason is reserved exclusively to humans.

"to an objectivist (as well as most neurologists) there is a healthy amount of both instinct and reason in a human being."

This is not the position taken by Objectivism.

"the only gripe i have is her complaint about altruism."

I think this is like saying, "The only gripe I have about Charles Darwin is his theory of natural selection." Take Rand's anti-altruism out of her philosophy, and there's not much left.

To me, it seems that you have a good, common-sense outlook that works well for you. Nothing wrong with that - but it's not Objectivism.

Red Grant said...

___________________________________

Take Rand's anti-altruism out of her philosophy, and there's not much left. - Michael Prescott
___________________________________




"All considerations must be purely calculation for oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes, or for so-called feelings of responsibility..." - Chairman Mao, Ayn Rand's soul matel?


From Page 13, "Mao, the Unknown story".

lance said...

no, i'm pretty sure rand admitted physical as well as mental impulses, per the example i gave about bodies with no heads and heads with no bodies.

but, anyway. no, i don't really just interpret objectivism how i want, i interpret it as how i thought she meant it. if that's not how she meant it, then i guess i'm just plain wrong, which i'll accept.

regardless, i agree that rejecting anti-altruism is rejecting her entire MORAL philosophy, but i mostly agree with her POLITICAL and EPISTIMOLOGICAL views.

finally, the comment by mao was unknown to me, but really puts things into perspective. i've said myself that communist motivations seemed more selfish than selfless, which does happen to contradict her.

anyway, i've discovered better philosophers who covered many of the same ideas as her that handled it much better. John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and our founding fathers.

i'm no objectivist. i'm just an old school "liberal" or, in todays terms, conservative libertarian or fusionist.

Michael Prescott said...

Lance, see the quotes on this Web page for Rand's explicit repudiation of the idea that human beings have instincts:


http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/instinct.html


"i agree that rejecting anti-altruism is rejecting her entire MORAL philosophy, but i mostly agree with her POLITICAL and EPISTIMOLOGICAL views."

In my opinion, her political views amount to little without her anti-altruist stand. See how far you can read in any of her political essays before you encounter a denunciation of altruism. I'm betting it won't be very far.

Regarding Rand's epistemology, I recommend Scott Ryan's book "Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality," which (though rather technical) thoroughly dissects Objectivist epistemology. Ryan shows that Rand not only failed to solve the problem of universals, but did not even properly understand it.

Anonymous said...

It may be in bad form to comment on posts made months ago, but I can't resist commenting on the issue of concept formation. My read is that Rand's view comes pretty darn close to how a neural network computer with an analog (symbolic) interface to other computers (because nature didn't provide us with direct brain to brain interface) - which is the best scientific model of our brains we have to date - would operate.

In general, I am surprised and amused that on this blog, a blog so explicitly dedicated to reality based and oriented thinking, human brain itself is not treated as what it is: a computer part of a gene reproduction plant.

- Boris Gendelev

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Boris,

I don't think this blog has too much of a problem with the model of the mind-as-computer. It's a compelling argument that gains more credence each day. But this doesn't mean it's correct, of course. I have an open mind on the subject.

The main problem for the computational model of the mind for Rand's philosophy is of course that computers don't have volition.

Of course Rand's theory of mind is not clear at all in the first place. See Diana Hsieh's summary here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel,

Volition is just a word used to describe certain phenomena we observe in ourselves, thanks to the brain’s ability to store some of its own past activity as memory (not a hard thing for the computer to do, to keep a log as a database): its processing of action choices generated by a pattern matching subconscious brain. (The processing of choices involves learned symbolic methods, such as old wife’s tales, general logic or sometimes specialized such as financial theory) .

Looking back at one’s actions, a proposition that there was a choice of actions seems correct, but a proposition that under the same exact scenario, with no changes in the programs or inputs, the brain could have made a different choice, seems rather wrong-headed, and for sure not testable. Not testable means not provable and therefore useless in any practical sense. (To complicate matters a little, but not to change the essence: it is possible, in fact likely, that throwing a dice is in the brain’s bag of tricks, but than the action is the action of throwing the dice and that action is deterministic. Actions chosen by dice throwing would hardly fall into our conception of “volition” anyway.)

The useful meaning to “someone had a choice” is “in the future, in similar circumstances, that person can make a different choice”, but the subtext of that is “now that that person is informed by the observed outcome of their actions (including the subsequent opinions and reactions of others)”. The brains can and does run simulations, which often involve replay of the past, so it’s rather natural for the brain to develop sensations that the past itself could have paid out differently. And maybe these sensations even have an evolutionary purpose: giving greater concreteness to plans of future action. But one of the by-products is an illusion of volition as a

And what do we mean when we say that someone has “free will”. Most of all, we mean that the choice is still going to be made inside a person’s brain, there is no wire that directly makes one person’s body follows the program of another person’s brain. Secondarily, to differentiate ourselves from other species, we mean that the brain a) runs simulation of the future (from past memories) and b) applies learned symbolic processing choice evaluation methods.

No need to involve God and souls to explain our own words and sensations behind them.

- Boris Gendelev

Xtra Laj said...

Boris,

In my view, Rand would have a far greater problem with your "mind as a computer" analogy than the owners of this blog do.

The owners of this blog have generally reviewed Stephen Pinker favorably and come to terms with evolutionary theory, even if they might have differences with this or that aspect of it. Pinker is one of the most popular advocates of the "mind as computer for evolutionary goals" paradigm in popular non-fiction science.

I think that there are enough philosophical issues with mind and cognitive science that demanding complete agreement on a topic where empirical science has not definitively provide an answer is unfair. Rand's ideas were for the most part speculative and did not cite any experiments as evidence for them. The idea that human beings form concepts through similarity and difference did not originate with Rand.

Rand never made peace with evolution (at least, it is not on display in any of her writings). She also had problems with materialist views of the brain and had a fairly radical concept of free will. She was not clear on the degree to which genetics influenced human ability.

In other words, it is easier to deal with evolutionary science and cognitive science without using Rand's philosophical influence as a guide to navigate them.

XL

Anonymous said...

XL,

My original point was that once you strip off some of the "heroic" language as well as put the notions of free will and volition into context, Rand might have intuited a conception of cognition that is not that far from the essence of the "pattern remembering and matching computer built by evolution" conception of the brain the best of evolutionary cognitive science has to offer.

Of course, she had some things patently wrong, or, to be generous, described sloppily, such as practically equating the use of logic is rationality / reason and association of rationality with conscious functions of the brain only.

I wasn’t expecting to find consensus on this topic, but did expect a blog ostensibly pre-occupied with an empirical understanding of reality, to view everything about humans, including mind and soul (whatever we mean by that) to be just aspects of knowable physical reality. And we certainly know enough about the brain to call it a “computer” – an information processing device – and moreover, a specific type of a computer: a neural network. Much remains to be learned about what pre-programming we come with, if and how it can be altered, the interactions between pre-programmed parts and parts that learn. But I don’t see how the basic concept can be in dispute, anymore than evolution can be, unless one introduces God.

- Boris Gendelev

Xtra Laj said...

Boris,

Criticism of Rand on this blog takes many different angles. As Daniel pointed out, on *some* points, it is not so much the substance Rand's claims being criticized as it is Rand's method of arriving at them and the resistance of Objectivists to openly analyzing and testing those claims that this blog takes issue with.

Whatever Rand had intuited correctly is not that different from what many philosophers and empirical psychologists have intuited correctly. There are many interesting works on consciousness that predate Rand and tackle questions about child/human cognition empirically.

And on many of the testable details, she is just speculating and some of her devotees have not critically tested such speculation, the finer points of which Daniel has made many insightful criticisms. No one here has claimed that the core theory of similarity and difference is incorrect and I doubt that anyone here would do so without citing some expert or the other, since none of us here are practicing cognitive scientists/experts. Moreover, Pinker made some criticisms of neural networks if they take a blank slate form without innate predispositions.

The approach that the bloggers here take is to go as far as they can with the empirical evidence. On things that are not easy to confirm or repute with empirical evidence, there is a lot of room for disagreement. While I think my view of these issues might be closer to yours, I don't consider either Dan or Greg to believe that mind or soul are not aspects of a physical knowable reality if that means that they reject the empirical evidence for physical causes of human behavior.

Moreover, the idea that every aspect of reality must be knowable or physical is a claim that is not empirically testable, so what should really be done, in my view, is to carefully review the evidence and show how it supports or weakens this or that view of how reality works.

It's one thing for a neuroscientist to be a dualist, but to be a dualist and deny the debilitating effects of brain damage because it leaves the "soul" intact is a bit much. But to argue that there are experiments that might support dualism that do not have convincing materialist explanations is another story altogether and has some plausibility. Let's try to use these lines of argument at the empirical level to make our case and not start at the philosophical levels where things are hard to understand.

Therefore, if you have some issue with some particular claim of Dan or Greg made against Rand and you have some empirical evidence that contradicts it, that would be helpful. If you don't agree with their overall philosophy, I doubt I agree with their overall philosophy too (though it's all in the details), so I look at the empirical evidence and make my case from that.

XL

Dragonfly said...

Boris, with regard to volition you might read my post here: http://tinyurl.com/y9xdzyz

gregnyquist said...

"In general, I am surprised and amused that on this blog, a blog so explicitly dedicated to reality based and oriented thinking, human brain itself is not treated as what it is: a computer part of a gene reproduction plant. "

Whether the human brain is a computer depends on how you define "computer." While the brain obviously has computer-like characteristics, human beings and computers "proper" are hardly identical. Human beings are volitional, telelogical, emotive, whereas computers are just inanimate mechanisms.

My own view is that Pinker overstates the analogy between computers and the mind. In this, he does come closer to Rand than I do (i.e., they both tend toward a mechanistic model of thinking, though Rand's view imports a number of crude, rationalistic, pre-scientific Aristotlean notions). My views come closer to those of Damasio, who sees emotion as a critical aspect of thought (which Rand, of course, would vehmently reject). Since Damasio is a respected neuroscientist, his views can hardly be dismissed as not being reality based or reality orientated.

Dragonfly said...

@Greg: the notion of computer and emotions are not mutually exclusive. So far we have little or no use for emotions in computers as we're not advanced enough yet in our programming. But a primitive version may play a role in robots that must make decisions on their own in a variable environment. Of course such "emotions" are still very simple compared to the complex emotions of a human being, but the notion of "I must avoid that" can be seen as a toy version of the emotion "fear", and the evaluation of the results of an action can be described in terms of "pain" and "pleasure. Sure, we're still far removed from our human range of emotions, but the difference with the systems of insects is probably not so great anymore. We try to get there faster than the billions of years that evolution needed, but you can't expect results within a very short time.

Already during the time of the first computers there were people who thought that in a few years a computer would beat the world champion chess. In fact it took many decades before that really happened (while some people maintained that it would never be possible). So we shouldn't be overly optimistic about our time scheme (a similar story can be found in the history and predictions of space travel), but there are no principal objections to the possibility.

Anon69 said...

Humans weight or reinforce associations based on intensity and repetition of experience. Although computers may performing a similar weighting function, it is not a given that they do so. Every human being as a consequence of the brain's wiring automatically intensifies memory associations by repeated use (conversely allowing connections to weaken with disuse). As described in the book "Lateral Thinking" the human mind is essentially a pattern-reinforcing mechanism. A broader observation along these same lines is that the human mind is fundamentally analog, while the computer is fundamentally digital.

Anonymous said...

Dragonfly,

I agree. Usually, people who think that the computer as mind analogy is too simplistic have a very simplistic view of computers. If you consider the human body to be physical in nature, you already have one such computer. I don't see any reason at the current time not to consider emotions as a kind of information since pain depends on nervous (neural) stimulation. I followed the "computer chess champion" prediction as a player and the approach taken to designing a computer champion has been considered to be very different from what human beings do, but the truth is that no one really knows what human beings do. It's quite possible that simplifying/underestimating the amount of hardware required to replicate complex judgment hindered any attempt at a serious solution.

There might be some objection to this that I'm missing, but I think that even if the objection is serious, it is likely to be inconclusive in the absence of more and more knowledge. It's a kind of promissory materialism, but a three decades ago, predicting that computers would be able to beat strong human players at chess and seeing them lose was a form of promissory materialism.

Xtra Laj (XL)

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "Of course such 'emotions' are still very simple compared to the complex emotions of a human being, but the notion of 'I must avoid that' can be seen as a toy version of the emotion 'fear'and the evaluation of the results of an action can be described in terms of 'pain' and 'pleasure.'"

I'm sorry, but I don't find this terribly convincing. I don't regard emotions merely as programmed responses; nor human emotions as merely an immensely complicated stimulus response mechanism. Emotions are more the responses of avoidance or "I want": they are sentient; and no purely mechanistic explanation of sentience can ever adequately account for it. While I admire the science of materialists like Pinker, I don't have much use for their metaphysics, which seems to me at war with such obvious facts as consciousness, self-initiative, creativity, motives, intention, and the existence of what Popper calls "World 3 objects." The view that everything in the universe can be reduced to matter seems to me simply be the fallacy of monism; as such, it is not different, and on no higher intellectual plane, than Thales view that all is water or Hegel's that the rational is real or Rand's the reality is logical. These views stem, at least in part, from the all-too-human conviction that reality is ultimately explicable--a view which itself is inexplicable and implausible. I see reality as diverse, pluralistic, mysterious, and, at its core, inexplicable. The human mind, which, in its attempt to grasp reality, tries to simplify it as much as possible, squeezing it into fewer and fewer principles, despite whatever wisdom and good sense might say to the contrary, rebels against all this complexity and diversity which confronts it from the external world and tries to explain it away.

Dragonfly said...

Greg: "Emotions are more the responses of avoidance or "I want": they are sentient; and no purely mechanistic explanation of sentience can ever adequately account for it."

What a strange dogmatic statement. How do you know that a "mechanistic" (I'd say "physical") explanation cannot be found? Is that just a feeling? It sounds to me like a yearn for mysticism and for the "god of the gaps" idea: "what we cannot explain now can only explained by some supernatural god".

There is no reason to think that "consciousness, self-initiative, creativity, motives, intention" cannot be explained by physical means. It is the extreme complexity of the systems with that behavior that makes it so difficult to disentangle the underlying mechanisms and as far as we know now it could take many decades before we get a real understanding. But that is no reason to invoke some unphysical, mystical influences. We no longer think that sun, moon, lightning, thunder etc. are gods or caused by gods, for these relatively simple systems we've found physical explanations that suffice.

Human beings are the result of a purely mechanical evolution in the course of billions of years beginning with the most primitive organisms. Using the principle of Occam's razor, there is no reason to assume unphysical, mystical factors that "somehow" influence the organisms to make them intelligent and creative.

Xtra Laj said...

Greg,

That was actually Dragonfly's statement. I don't see any reason to disagree with it though, but on the other hand, I think that the issue will be best resolved by describing the kind of experiment or behavior that you think computers will never replicate and watching whether science will ever meet that standard. I gave up on dealing seriously with the hairsplitting of philosophical distinctions and favored personal explanations a while ago.

I still meet people everyday who tell me that addiction is about willpower and for that reason, refuse to deal with the evidence of drugs being used to inhibit the production of certain hormones or to close of certain receptors and thereby reduce/eliminate cravings. Refusing to accept materialist metaphysics is neither here nor there. Refusing to accept experimental evidence because you think or know it implies materialist metaphysics is another story.

The only way I would seriously argue this was if I was a researcher and your view was one which prevented me from getting funds for research. I just think that there is no reason to think that emotions and learning are inconsistent with a complex mechanical behavior that utilizes information to produce responses.

To make your view consistent, we would have to grant something like what you are talking about to all animals or even living things if we subscribe to evolutionary theory or like Rand, look for that magical spark that separates men from animals (like Dragonfly or Dennett, "the god of the gaps"). Again, I have no argument here as long as there is some empirical distinction to be made between how I see this things and how you do. And I think that the one empirical distinction I can think of is that you think that there are certain things that computers will never be able to do: "creativity, self-initiative etc." Since just about all these actions are directed towards ends that we can categorize, just like those of computers, it is part of the reason why the intelligent design paradigm is so compelling. We could be computers designed to meet a certain purpose. We could be computers that evolved from simpler structures. But the bottom line is that disputing that we can be computers, given the amount of human behavior that can be explained by information processing paradigms and the great number of correlations between human behaviors and materialist explanations, is something that should be given fair hearing and whose dispute should rest on evidence, not a summary dismissal of the issue.

Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lance said...

emotions are biologically reactionary, compounded, often, with physical sensations. emotions aren't part of a rational decision making process, hence are not cognitive nor sentient. emotions are "instinct." this simplification process that you've complained about is also the primary facet of physics and of mathematics, which has led to many empirically concrete advancements. isaac newton simplified the way we perceive the universe through his principia. he did not add more complexity.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "I think that the issue will be best resolved by describing the kind of experiment or behavior that you think computers will never replicate and watching whether science will ever meet that standard."

I doubt that such an experiment is possible. Science may constitute the most objective form of knowledge, and therefore the best way of solving differences of opinion between two individuals. But it's not necessarily the deepest or most relevant or, in all contexts, the most useful form of knowledge. The belief that material objects exist independent of our perception of them is not a scientific belief; but this doesn't make our realist convictions more uncertain and conjectural than scientific ones.

"I still meet people everyday who tell me that addiction is about willpower and for that reason, refuse to deal with the evidence of drugs being used to inhibit the production of certain hormones or to close of certain receptors and thereby reduce/eliminate cravings."

I don't think there's necessarily a contradiction between willpower and physiologically based cravings. The only difference is that science understands the cravings much better than it understands willpower. But does that mean there's no such thing as willpower? I had a neighbor who quit heroin without any assistance, pharmalogical or otherwise, on his own "willpower." Why did he succeed at it while others can't seem to? I don't know—but science doesn't know either. And I wouldn't be surprised if science never knows.

"Refusing to accept materialist metaphysics is neither here nor there. Refusing to accept experimental evidence because you think or know it implies materialist metaphysics is another story."

What evidence have I refused to accept? I would merely contend that materialist metaphysics (or "physicalism") is not warrented by the evidence, that if followed consistently, it leads to an epiphenomenal view of consciousness, which I have come to view as an implausible position.

"And I think that the one empirical distinction I can think of is that you think that there are certain things that computers will never be able to do: 'creativity, self-initiative etc.' Since just about all these actions are directed towards ends that we can categorize, just like those of computers, it is part of the reason why the intelligent design paradigm is so compelling."

Perhaps—but I have to admit that I don't always find intelligent design all that compelling. I suspect those of that persuasion are too eager to read design into nature, just as (or so I would contend) the physicalists are too eager to read physicalism into nature. From a common sense point of view, I would merely suggest that computers will never be able to think because computers will never be conscious (or, even more critically, self-conscious), and consciousness does matter: nature wouldn't have breeded it into us if it didn't matter. Mozart could compose the Jupiter symphony in part because, in conscious reflection, he could distinguish between "inspired" music and "uninspired" music. Self-reflection, self-criticism, judgment—there is a quality in these things that science cannot explain. I can't prove that the Jupiter symphony is more profound than a Saleri overture. But does that mean I'm hairsplitting or speaking unscientific, unempirical nonsense?

gregnyquist said...

"...disputing that we can be computers, given the amount of human behavior that can be explained by information processing "

How much really can it explain? And what it seems to explain, how much of that is due to what cognitive scientists call the "Eliza" effect, after the AI psychologist Eliza who, if you interact with her superficially (which I have), can almost seem human, but when you look deeper, you find is made up of trivial canned responses designed to create the illusion of personhood.

It is unlikely that the question of materialism versus interactionism can be settled scientifically. The evidence brought forth in favor of materialism has been interpreted to fit that thesis. There are compelling reasons (brought forth by Popper and Lovejoy, among others) for doubting this interpretation.

gregnyquist said...

Dragonfly: "What a strange dogmatic statement. How do you know that a 'mechanistic' (I'd say 'physical') explanation cannot be found? Is that just a feeling? It sounds to me like a yearn for mysticism and for the 'god of the gaps' idea: 'what we cannot explain now can only explained by some supernatural god.'"

As if the view that everything has a physical cause is not also "strange" and "dogmatic"! In any case, this materialism or physicalism is hardly "scientific," but is merely an interpretation of scientific evidence—an interpretaton, moreover, which stands in the teeth of obvious facts, such as that human beings are self-conscious and that this fact makes a difference in how people behave and what they do. The only way for the physicalist to get around this is to assume that the experience of consciousness mattering is either an illusion or a pretension. But what evidence is there for this assumption? Because the brain affects consciousness? But that fact hardly constitutes conclusive evidence unless one assumes that causation must flow in only one direction (i.e., from the physical). Since. however, that's the very point at issue, it hardly seems appropriate to make use of it in the interpretation of the evidence.

You bring up the "god of gaps": is that what this is really about? We must be physicalists else all those horrid theologians will fill non-physicalist gaps with nonsense? But this is mere tilting at windmills. Since we will never be omniscient, there will always be gaps in which nonsense can be poured. Nothing to be done for it: just part of the human condition.

"But that is no reason to invoke some unphysical, mystical influences."

Whose invoking "mystical" influences? Or is any non-physical influence by definition "mystical." How about: "we just don't know"? Our brains seem to have evolved to understand and comprehend certain aspects of reality better than others. Physical and mechanistic systems appear more comprehensible than the sub-molecular or the mental. But does that mean we should use the physical as our template for understanding the mental and the sub-molecular?

Dragonfly said...

Greg: "The belief that material objects exist independent of our perception of them is not a scientific belief."

It is the hypothesis that forms the basis of science. The alternative is solipsism, which in principle still would allow us to do all the scientific experiments and construct theories, while maintaining that these are not evidence of an external reality, but that would be a very artifical enterprise. The results would all look like a duck, walk like a duck and quack like a duck, the duck being external reality, so that it is easier to say that it is a duck.

"From a common sense point of view, I would merely suggest that computers will never be able to think because computers will never be conscious (or, even more critically, self-conscious)"

Common sense point of view? According to common sense a particle cannot be a wave at the same time, and according to common sense time is always the same for everyone, so that for example one of a twin pair cannot become 10 (or 100, 1000) years older than the other one. Yet science has shown that common sense has been wrong: these things are possible.

"And what it seems to explain, how much of that is due to what cognitive scientists call the "Eliza" effect, after the AI psychologist Eliza who, if you interact with her superficially (which I have), can almost seem human, but when you look deeper, you find is made up of trivial canned responses designed to create the illusion of personhood."

That is the same kind of argument as pointing to a fireworks rocket and saying "and with that we should be able to go to the moon and explore the planets of the solar system?!" Common sense tells us that this would be impossible!

Dragonfly said...

Greg: "As if the view that everything has a physical cause is not also "strange" and "dogmatic"! "

Physics is the science that studies nature in all its aspects. For increasingly complex systems the sciences chemistry and biology do the same, but they are in fact extensions of physics that study certain aggregates of elementary physical objects, that use their own language, but they are reducible to physics, that is, every result of these sciences can in principle be reduced to fundamental physical properties. That this is often not practical (for example describing a biological entity in terms of interactions between elementary particles) doesn't change the underlying principle. In Dennett's terms: being a reductionist doesn't mean that one should be a greedy reductionist. Now man is a biological entity that is the result of a long, blind algorithmic process of evolution, so there isn't any reason to believe that any characteristic of man, including his consciousness, is not in principle reducible to physical properties. It would violate the basic principle of natural science.

"Whose invoking "mystical" influences? Or is any non-physical influence by definition "mystical." How about: "we just don't know"? "

Aha, but "we don't know" is not the same as "I know that physics cannot explain that". The latter is a kind of hubris that I often see in non-scientists, like those Objectivists who tell us that quantum mechanics is corrupt and that Einstein's theories are rationalistic. The less they know, the more certain they are. Of course there are many things we don't know yet, but that doesn't mean that we still can learn a lot. The difference between science and philosophy (in the current meaning) is that science delivers the goods, it works.

Xtra Laj said...

I doubt that such an experiment is possible. - Greg

The instant you admit that such an experiment is impossible, then all that is left is to raise arguments of plausibility and imagination against each other. If there isn't even an experiment that confers more plausibility to one viewpoint vs. another, we are in trouble here.

The "problem" so to speak with consciousness is that it is an "internal" experience. We are certain of our own consciousness, infer that of others from our own experiences, but do no see or experience the consciousness of others directly.

What for me was most telling was that you never even touched upon the question of whether and how you were willing to grant animals so form of consciousness. That usually smacks of ideologically motivated "human exceptionalism".

Physicalism, at least, seems plausible because we can correlate many differences in ability with physical phenomena. The argument is that our physical composition gives us abilities that flies lack.

I think that there are quite a few experiments that could put physicalism in question. Could two virtually identical physical states yield different thoughts or reports of internal experience? That's the kind of thing that would falsify physicalism for me. But we have to try and do better than relying on philosophical arguments. Otherwise, we will simply be debating things without understanding what their real implications are.

Xtra Laj said...

. For increasingly complex systems the sciences chemistry and biology do the same, but they are in fact extensions of physics that study certain aggregates of elementary physical objects, that use their own language, but they are reducible to physics, that is, every result of these sciences can in principle be reduced to fundamental physical properties. - Dragonfly

Exactly. As David Armstrong describes it in his book, The Mind-Body Problem: An Opinionated Introduction, which I highly recommend, even though it is billed as an introductory work, Dennett's trick is that a complex organ like the brain is made of simpler organs/machines/cells etc. so what you have to see if how the smaller systems give rise to the function of the larger system. And as the systems get dumber and dumber, you get to the micro-level of atoms.

Now, this may have problems, but I think that they aren't obvious to me on the basis of arguments about the dualism between mind and matter. The claim that mind is something apart from matter to the extent that they cannot both be two sides of the same coin - our internal experiences are simply the results of brain states - isn't so obviously wrong to me, even if it can be wrong, as I will admit without any problem. It's quite possible that internal experiences are something that all physical things possess or that only human beings possess, but it is not clear how to empirically show this. I prefer to take Dennett's approach of using reports of internal experiences as data to be explained until some incredible problem comes up with this approach.

gregnyquist said...

Dragonfly: "Common sense point of view? According to common sense a particle cannot be a wave at the same time, and according to common sense time is always the same for everyone, so that for example one of a twin pair cannot become 10 (or 100, 1000) years older than the other one. Yet science has shown that common sense has been wrong: these things are possible. "

There is a kind of latent positivism in all this that needs to be aired out. Different domains of experience require different cognitive strategies. Common sense is merely habitual reflections on normal experience. Neither quantum mechanics nor relativity deal with normal experience; so it is not surprising that common sense breaks down when applied to those domains of experience. But to argue that common sense is an untrustworthy guide to normal experience because it is an untrustworthy guide to relativity theory or quantum theory is to lapse into serious confusion. Our normal experience testifies that consciousness makes a difference: that the conscious person, the awake person, is significantly different from the unconscious person. Now unless there is very compelling evidence on the other side, there is no reason not to accept the obvious conclusions of our normal experience.

"...but they [biology and chemistry] are reducible to physics, that is, every result of these sciences can in principle be reduced to fundamental physical properties..."

Merely because biology and chemistry is reducible to physics, doesn't prove psychology is also so reducible. This is scientism, not science. It is a metaphysical theory wearing the garb of science and trying to pass itself off as science.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "What for me was most telling was that you never even touched upon the question of whether and how you were willing to grant animals so form of consciousness. That usually smacks of ideologically motivated 'human exceptionalism'."

Because of a typo, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. In any case, I'm not sure it matters, because I don't think the issue of animal consciousness is all that important in this question. What I am seeking is a theory that takes account of all the relevant facts, not just those facts that are easily explicable by scientific methods. The problem with materialism/physicalism is that it logically implies that consciousness is epiphenomenal and inefficacious, and that view strikes me as untenable. But it also serves as a powerful inducement to just the sort of scientistic prejudices that I have been opposed to since I was first introduced to their baneful effects as an economics major in college. If human beings can be reduced to the subject matter of physics, then it doesn't seem so objectionable to try to describe human behavior in equations, as econometricians do. Physicalism is not a scientific theory; it is a vision of things. But is it a true or apt vision? It may be a true or apt vision of purely physical things; and it may have much to add to our knowledge of human things; but it cannot act as a complete substitute for humanistic knowledge.

Physicalism (or materialism) is merely the extreme opposite of idealism. Now neither of these theories adequately represent the facts as confronted by sentient intelligence. Both misuse Occam's Razor to shave off those aspects of reality that are inconvenient to the unity of their visions. Only interactionism can do full justice to both the facts elucidated by science and the facts as they appear to us from normal experience.

Xtra Laj said...

The problem with materialism/physicalism is that it logically implies that consciousness is epiphenomenal and inefficacious, and that view strikes me as untenable.

That's not the way I understand the argument. I understand the argument as saying as the current conception of consciousness is wrong - it is not apart from material states in the brain, but it is the same as the material states in the brain. The experience of happiness is not apart from the material states in the brain but is the material states in the brain. This is the identity-materialism that is currently most commonly held amongst materialist philosophers. They would argue that this is very different from epiphenomenalism, which claims that the brain states and the mental states are different things, but brain states cause the mental states but the mental states have no use.

And since no one has shown that *internal experiences* are open to anyone other than those who experience them, my point is that it is best to see how far the physicalist can go, no matter how much you disagree with him, rather than claim he is ignoring precisely what he is perpetually trying to explain. First of all the agenda is to explain how the operation of complex structure is the result of the behavior of simpler structures. The next part is to always explain reported experiences (precisely what you say they are trying to ignore) as being very well, ideally perfectly correlated, with material states in the brain. If the materialists fail in this regard, and I have shown one empirical manner in which they may fail - can they insert memories into a mind by physically rearranging brain cells - there will be no problem ceding the ground to dualism. But the outright dismissal of dualism is no different to me from the outright dismissal of materialism, with materialism as currently conceived having the edge that it actually provides a fruitful research agenda, something which dualism does not.

Red Grant said...

___________________________________

What I am seeking is a theory that takes account of all the relevant facts, not just those facts that are easily explicable by scientific methods. - Greg
___________________________________


Relevant to whom?


___________________________________

But it also serves as a powerful inducement to just the sort of scientistic prejudices that I have been opposed to since I was first introduced to their baneful effects as an economics major in college. - Greg
___________________________________



I was a mechanical engineering major, and I personally have very little respect for most economists, but still I agree with your assessment above.



___________________________________

Physicalism is not a scientific theory; it is a vision of things. But is it a true or apt vision? It may be a true or apt vision of purely physical things; and it may have much to add to our knowledge of human things; but it cannot act as a complete substitute for humanistic knowledge. - Greg
___________________________________




Indeed.

Dragonfly said...

Greg: "Our normal experience testifies that consciousness makes a difference: that the conscious person, the awake person, is significantly different from the unconscious person."

That is in no way an argument against the physical basis of consciousness.

"The problem with materialism/physicalism is that it logically implies that consciousness is epiphenomenal and inefficacious, and that view strikes me as untenable."

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "epiphenomenal" and "inefficacious", but the fact that consciousness and thinking are in fact physical phenomena ensures that they can be quite efficacious, just as the software in a computer can be efficacious thanks to the hardware in which it is embedded. That the physical description is much less practical than the more abstract, intentional description is not relevant in that regard. These are merely two descriptions at different levels of abstraction of the same physical phenomenon.

"If human beings can be reduced to the subject matter of physics, then it doesn't seem so objectionable to try to describe human behavior in equations, as econometricians do."

That's a strawman argument. That human beings are in principle reducible to physical phenomena, doesn't mean that a description in terms of physical interactions is the best way to describe their activities. That is the error that Dennett - himself a reductionist - calls "greedy reductionism". That econometricians think that they can gain scientific prestige by trying to emulate the hard sciences by using a lot of mathematics is their error, it is an example of what Feynman calls "cargo cult science", imitating the real thing, thinking that that is the real thing. That is not to say that all mathematical equations about people are necessarily wrong, we should only keep in mind that people and their interactions have so many facets and are so complex, that we can only use approximate, statistical equations about larger aggregates of people, not forgetting the error margins.

Dragonfly said...

Xtra Laj: "The experience of happiness is not apart from the material states in the brain but is the material states in the brain. This is the identity-materialism that is currently most commonly held amongst materialist philosophers. They would argue that this is very different from epiphenomenalism, which claims that the brain states and the mental states are different things, but brain states cause the mental states but the mental states have no use."

You hit the nail on the head.