Monday, October 01, 2007

Anon: "As for your point about the rationalization of philosophic speculation, I don't know where it's coming from. Objectivism views philosophic reasoning and scientific reasoning as of a piece."

Perhaps Anon and I have very different ways of making truth judgments, and that's getting in the way. Or maybe Anon is focussing exclusively on the intention of the Objectivist theory, rather than on its practical results. My tendency is to judge from the outside, not the inside. I'm not greatly interested in the so-called inner logic of theories and doctrines, but in their practical effect. What is the practical effect of Rand's epistemological convictions? How do they effect the cognitive behavior of those who think they are true? To answer these questions, I examine Rand's actual knowledge claims. Are her knowledge claims better, more true, more plausible, as a result of her epistemological theories? Or are they less so?

Now I realize that this is a somewhat conjectural proceeding. It's quite possible that Rand's epistemological theories have nothing to do with her knowledge claims, that the Objectivist epistemology is just window dressing. But in that case, I would seriously question the practical relevance of her epistemology. In any case, it's hard to square the window dressing view with textual references in Rand's own works, where the practicality of her theories is stressed.

"If Rand made assertions that you take to be contrary to what some scientists say, then either she was simply mistaken in her reasoning or the scientists are. The problem has nothing to do with her theory of concepts."

Not necessarily. If her theory of concepts gave in her unjustified confidence in her abstract reasonings (which I suspect is the case), then it would simply be naive to suggest there's no connection. Anon appears to think that it is only a problem of logic. But I believe — and findings in cognitive science support this — that this view of the matter is naive. Psychology also plays an important role in thinking. It particularly influences those who don't realize this, because they don't think to take counter measures against it.

"Next you say that Rand does not accept that some sciences may involve degrees of uncertainty. I don't know where you're getting that from or why, once again, it relates to the epistemological relevance of a theory of concepts."
Well, actually what I said is "Rand does not appear to have accepted the notion" that some sciences may involve degrees of uncertainty—a subtle but important difference. Where did I get the notion? Why, from Rand's own practice: from the fact that her statements about economics and politics are made as if she knew them to be certain. My contention is they can't be, and one of the reasons why this is so is because of that problem of oversimplified premises I noted in the earlier post. Take the issue of free trade, for example. Does anyone seriously believe that Rand did not regard the economic arguments for free trade as not being certain? But given the fact that they're based on over-simplified premises, that's problematic. There are, in fact, compelling arguments, ignored by most economists, that, under specialized conditions, some kinds of tariffs may increase output — a view, moreover, that's actually more consistent with the (admittedly not entirely conclusive) empirical evidence.

But what does all this talk about theories have to do with the theory of concepts? Well, it partly goes back to Anon's statement that the point of the hierarchy was "to show how abstract reasoning connects to perceptual evidence." I wanted to provide a relatively simple argument showing why I don't believe the Randian theory succeeds in achieving this goal. But there is another consideration which I have been hesitant to introduce because of the added complexity, and it is this: I regard concepts as theory-laden. To my mind, it is the theoretical content of concepts which makes them interesting and important. The emphasis in Objectivism on "validation of conceptual knowledge" is misplaced. As Karl Popper (who helped clarify this issue for me) puts it:
If so many philosophers and scientists still think that concepts and conceptual systems (and problems of their meaning, or the meanings of words) are comparable in importance to theories and theoretical systems (and problems of their truth, or the truth of statements), then they are still suffering from Plato's main error, ... which is [a] traditional [error], ... known as "the problem of universals." This should be replaced by "the problem of theories," or "the problem of the theoretical content of all human language."

What Rand would have said about the notion of concepts as theory-laden I don't know. Since it is a position that, at least in some respects, challenges the Aristotlean tradition (see Open Society and Its Enemies, vol 2, p. 9-21), I wouldn't expect Rand, who admired Aristotle immensely, to react all that favorably toward it.

Isn't it important to know whether the concepts we use in our theories our "valid"? No, not in practice. In fact, it's not helpful in the least — quite the contrary. After all, what does it mean to say that a concept is valid? Any arguments about "valid" or "invalid" concepts will often, in practice, reduce themselves to mere wranglings about the meaning of words. That is why scientists don't get their fur ruffled over the definitions of terms. That way madness lies! Indeed, there is no compelling evidence, either from science or from common life, that errors in cognition are caused by "inappropriate" or "invalid" concept formation. (And what is an "invalid" concept, anyway?) In successful sciences, like physics and chemistry, people argue, not about concepts or words, but about theories and assertions about facts. Those philosophers who, following in the tradition of Aristotle and Plato, were obsessed with concepts and conceptual systems, wound up becoming inextricably tangled in futile arguments about the meanings of words (e.g., medieval scholasticism). If the history of philosophy can be our guide in this manner, obsession with concepts and theories about the "justification" of concept-formation, must, because of the very futility of it (concepts being formed largely unconsciously) must lead, in practical terms, to what Popper calls "verbalism" — i.e., useless argumentation attempting to determine the "proper" definition, or the proper "validation," of this or that concept.

I regard the phrase "Galileo had to justify the concept of inertia as a rather inapt way of describing the fact that Galileo had to corroborate the theory of inertia. Even worse is the phrase "Both inertia and value are abstract and need to be abstracted in the proper order, connected to the proper evidence," because it suggests that the critical aspect of any knowledge-claim involves the formation of the concept in which that claim is expressed, and not the development of a theory about concept's referents. The phrase "abstracted in the proper order," is particularly mischievous, because it suggests that a concept's theory can be tested by examining the place of that concept in the hierarchy, all the way down to the so-called perceptual level. In practice, this would appear to be mean examining a concept in the light of other concepts. In short, it means what Popper calls "verbalism" and others call rationalism.

Having spent years studying the rationalizations of ideologues, I have found that one very important aspect of verbalism involves taking advantage of the ambiguity of "wider" concepts to carry forth points that are contrary to logic and fact. This is why Rand's defense of such high-level abstractions arouses my suspicions. "When concepts are integrated into a wider one, the new concept includes all the characteristics of its constituent units," she insists in IOTE. But this is psychologically misleading. Wider concepts generally have more varied referents. And some of those referents may have important differences that are ignored when one simply refers to them under the wider concept. Anon unwittingly provides an illustrative example in his post, where he writes "the cognitive view of emotions is hardly distinctive to Objectivism. It has been held by Aristotelians for decades (see Magda Arnold), and more recently by the highly successful discipline of cognitive-behavioral therapy." At first glance, this seems like a respectable argument. Since both Rand and cognitive-behavioral therapy share a "cognitive view of emotions," Anon can use the success of CBT as evidence for the Randian theory of emotions. But what is not noticed is the critical details that have been ignored under the concept cognitive view of emotions. The fact of the matter is, that Rand's particularly version of the theory has not been accepted by the CBT community. We know this because one of the most important figures in CBT, Albert Ellis, who wrote for the first critical book about Objectivism (i.e., Is Objectivism a Religion?), declared that the relationship Rand posits between thought and emotions is "nonexistent." So the fact that Rand's theory can be classified under the wider category of cognitive view of emotions along with CBT does not mean that evidence for CBT can also be regarded as possible evidence for Rand's theory!

Now I realize it could be argued that Anon's error is a logical fallacy (namely, the fallacy of equivocation). While this is true, it misses the larger point. In abstract reasonings, there can be scores of wide level concepts that could all be positively drenched in the logical sin of equivocation. It is a thankless task, and utterly futile, for the intrepid critic to comb over some particularly abstruse piece of abstract reasoning and try to pick out all the equivocation fallacies embedded, like so many land mines, within it. Much more easier simply to examine the conclusions of those reasonings and subject them to as rigorous empirical criticism as the circumstances allow.

Anon's post is so rich in many of the issues it raises that there still remains a great deal more to be covered. But that will have to wait for other posts.


Daniel Barnes said...

>"Objectivism views philosophic reasoning and scientific reasoning as of a piece."

So Anon claims. But once again, we find in her work Rand often makes a clear separation between scientific practice and philosophic practice. Recall her discussions in the ITOE (eg the mind/body problem), where she claims it is the philosopher's job to "define the terms", and the scientist's job to study the actual problems. Obviously these are quite different methods! Yet Anon is arguing that in Objectivism philosophy and science are "of a piece".

Thus in Objectivism the methods of science and philosophy are the same but different!.This seems to be yet another example of an unacknowledged contrary within Rand's thinking, like her "contextual absolute."

Neil Parille said...


I think Rand's theory of concepts is problematic, but I'm not sure if Rand's penchant for making unsupported statements about human nature and other things should be traced to it.

Long before Rand came up with the ideas in ITOE, she was convinced of her "heroic man" theory. (This is why she became an atheist at a young age, and I believe she once said that all her life's work was devoted to this principle.)

Second, Rand, like many intellectuals, had an exaggerated view of the importance of philosophical ideas.

So, for example, I don't think it was the ideas set forth in ITO that led her speculate in her notes for Atlas Shrugged in the 40's that we are living in the midst of "pre-humans" and "sub-hmumans" or her statement years later that a person can raise his IQ from 110 to 150.

Ellen Stuttle tives the example of Peikoff's "My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand." There, Rand rejected the idea that a "streaker" at the Academy Awards was a kid making a prank. Instead, she concluded that it was an "example of nihilism." (Actually, Peikoff does connect Rand's observation here to her theory of concepts.)

gregnyquist said...

Neil: "I think Rand's theory of concepts is problematic, but I'm not sure if Rand's penchant for making unsupported statements about human nature and other things should be traced to it."

Thanks for the clarification. I fully agree, and if anything I wrote seems to imply otherwise, I'm sorry for the confusion. I do believe, however, that there is a connection between Rand's theory of concepts and her

Rand's theory of concepts can be view as a rationalization of her knowledge claims, including her knowledge claims about human nature. If you were to challenge Rand on her knowledge claims about human nature, she might reply, "Anyone who knows how to use their minds correctly, who knows how to reason and form valid concepts, would come to the same conclusions about human nature as I did." Rand's theory of concepts is not only a justification of the validity, or at least potential validity, of conceptual knowledge, but also a justification of her conceptual knowledge.

Incidentally, this phrase conceptual knowledge is itself problematic. If we were to have a discussion about conceptual knowledge, what, in practical terms, would that mean? I suspect it can mean but one thing: discussion of definitions. Or, in other words, a discussion of what one word means in terms of other words. Not a very fruitful discussion, would that be!

Daniel Barnes said...

>Incidentally, this phrase conceptual knowledge is itself problematic. If we were to have a discussion about conceptual knowledge, what, in practical terms, would that mean? I suspect it can mean but one thing: discussion of definitions. Or, in other words, a discussion of what one word means in terms of other words. Not a very fruitful discussion, would that be!

Popper comes to this same conclusion about "conceptual analysis." Until we can read minds, in practice this will be no different than debates over verbal definitions.