Sunday, November 04, 2007

Objectivism and the Descent Into Pseudoscience

The debate over at www.richarddawkins.net vs "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" author Jim Valliant now appears to be over, as it seems Valliant has retired. It has however been most revealing as an example of what seems to be the trend within Objectivism towards the embrace of pseudoscience. Among other rather amazing claims, Valliant attempted to pass off his own "introspections" as a compelling empirical basis for Ayn Rand's theory of volition, and when pressed to name any of the numerous "scientists" he initially claimed were Objectivists, could only offer the anti-relativity crank Petr Beckmann*. This apparent trend we will explore further here at ARCHNblog, as it is corroborates Nyquist's thesis that Objectivism in practice only pays lipservice to scientific standards. But what are the underlying drivers in the philosophy that explain this? In a post at www.richarddawkins.net I offer one speculation as to why:

Dave, I'd like to touch on a central point that risks being overlooked.

Yes, Rand and her followers are generally - and as Mr Valliant demonstrates with his "Objecto-empiricism", even hilariously - ignorant of science. This is basically admitted every time they attempt to ring-fence some of her (and their) absurdities by appealing to a "philosophic" context, rather than a scientific one.

But the key point is this: basically Rand believed philosophy should quite literally set the terms for science (she says this quite clearly in the ITOE, in a remarkable passage where she insists that philosophers like herself will tell scientists the "proper" meaning of the words they use**). Philosophy is always in control; it might refute science; but it can never be the other way around. Philosophy is the master discipline - with Objectivism at the summit of that - from which "true" science (as well as ethics, politics, aesthetics etc) flows.

One can easily see the seduction here. The dream of the kind of intellectual power that allows you to make pronouncements over what is "proper" to even disciplines that you are ignorant of, has, like other more obvious dreams of power, perennial appeal. Further, it is a power that seems remarkably easily achieved; for it is basically very easy to play with words, as the Aristotelian method of definition that Rand adopted inevitably leads to (just as it lead to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages). This in turn empowers people like Mr Valliant to rock up to a science forum and begin instructing all and sundry as to what does and does not constitute "empirical" evidence. (And surely enough, with sufficiently determined sophistry, we see the determinist arguments from the massive empirical successes of physics and chemistry become dismissed as "empty arguments from authority", and his personal "introspections" promoted as both "empirical" and even "objective.")

It could be that Mr Valliant merely thinks it is Opposites Day here at Dawkins.net. However, I think there's a bigger story here. I conjecture that it is this underlying dream, and its accompanying scholastic methodology, that accounts for this peculiar picture of a movement ostensibly dedicated to reason, freedom, science, and productivity exhibiting, as you have already noted, so many alarming tendencies in the reverse direction.


*Even this appears to be incorrect, as Beckmann was apparently merely influenced by Rand. More about Beckmann here
**see pp289/290 "Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology"

45 comments:

Jay said...

I've been thinking about attempts to "validate" a philosophy using science and I think people look at this the wrong way. If you're looking for a scientific lab report or a peer-reviewed journal "proving" that rational self-interest leads to happiness, well, I don't think that's possible. But I also don't think that damages the case for Objectivism, either.

Alex Epstein offers a good example of this in his article, "The Epistemology of Pre-Emption."

"...any complex projection about human action-can be known with certainty, but only in principle. In human action, there is always the element of free will-so we do not always know when, where, or how any given dictator will choose to strike. For the same reason we can be certain that a capitalist society will achieve prosperity and that a statist society will doom its citizens to poverty, but we cannot predict what new innovations Silicon Valley will produce or when North Korea will suffer its next devastating famine, we can be certain that allowing other hostile countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction will lead to mass death for Americans, but not exactly how many deaths, how soon, or which hostile state will attack first.
SRC: http://alexepstein.com/articles/preemption.htm

The way we know if a philosophy is true and valid is by what occurs when you actually put its ideas into practice. This may not be exacting enough to please scientists. But I see no other way to "validate" a philosophy than to observe its results in practice and make logical inferences about them.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I've been thinking about attempts to "validate" a philosophy using science and I think people look at this the wrong way....The way we know if a philosophy is true and valid is by what occurs when you actually put its ideas into practice.

Hi Jay

The problem is exactly that Rand's ideas are really to vague to be of much practical help. No one is even able to say what "rational self-interest" translates to in practice anyway. As quite obvious evidence, go to any Objectivist website and there'll be debates about very standard situations from "compromises" about paying taxes or taking government jobs thru to voting Democrat or Republican right thru to farting in elevators....;-) If Objectivists all know what it is, why are they arguing about it?

Further, another problem that science attempts to overcome is confirmation bias:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

If you have a strong worldview, you tend to fit stuff into it, "validating" nothing more than your own preconceptions. Hence why science has developed a highly intra-critical perspective - we can sometimes more easily see others' errors than our own.

The issue becomes rather deep as to how to "validate" a philosophy; (the first question is why you need to have a "valid" and secure starting point in the first place; for to first require truth to obtain truth is a logical circularity. We actually start from error, and move closer to the truth.) But let's leave that debate for now, and simply pose the question as to why a prominent defender of Rand's feels he can go on a science forum and make such peculiar impostures in the first place.

Jay said...

That I'm less sure of. I would not rush into a forum on a subject I was not well-versed in. I will have to check out what was said.

Jay said...

Btw, I would define rational self-interest as an all-things-considered view of what truly makes someone better off. For example, many equate selfishness with mindless self-indulgence and whim worship. If you'd rather sleep in than get up and go to class, you're "selfish" for wasting your parents money.

In fact, you're stupid for doing that. Going to college and getting a (carefully chosen) degree would greatly enhance your future prospects. Rational self-interest is a general standard that each person has to apply to his life. I think that's sufficiently specific.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>That I'm less sure of. I would not rush into a forum on a subject I was not well-versed in. I will have to check out what was said.

Oh, sure. Have a look at the thread, which does get a bit convoluted, but is nonethess fairly clear.

Basically, Valliant tries to argue that Rand's various claims are "empirical", and even "overwhelmingly" so. He seems to think "empirical" means just looking at stuff, including his own thoughts. It's rather like saying I've got an "empirical" economics theory because I've looked at a dollar bill...;-)

Jay said...

Hmm..

So if I understand correctly, your claim isn't that it's impossible to validate Objectivism (or a philosophy in general), only that Objectivism's language is too vague to allow for validation?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>So if I understand correctly, your claim isn't that it's impossible to validate Objectivism (or a philosophy in general), only that Objectivism's language is too vague to allow for validation?

Briefly, it's in 3 parts;

1) It's impossible to indisputably validate any philosophy.
2) This doesn't matter, because indisputable validity is not necessary anyway. Knowledge can still grow.
3) Objectivist doctrine is generally too vague for practical consideration, above and beyond "think for yourself" type advice.

Neil Parille said...

Not to change subjects, but I got a big kick of Jim's attempt to back-track on his nutty surprise party claim.

Here is PARC --

"Rand was not seeking to 'control' anyone’s context here but her own. It was the Brandens who were part of the effort to 'control' Rand’s context through deception—Rand was merely objecting to the deception. (We shall see that this will not be the last time they will attempt to do this, merely one of the less important times.)"


Here is what he said on the thread:

"Of course, PARC attributes no such malevolence to them for throwing a party."

Jay said...

Daniel,

I'm only 3 pages into this debate. Very very interesting. So far I do find myself agreeing with Jim, especially on his refutations of determinism.

The person who cited the illusion of "randomness" on a die is not making a fair comparison. A die is completely inanimate, and totally at the mercy of physical forces.

Our internal brain functions (whether you agree with free will or not) are much, MUCH more complex than that and it is not sufficient to say just because the roll of a dice isn't a random people don't have free will.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "I've been thinking about attempts to 'validate' a philosophy using science and I think people look at this the wrong way."

Well of course an entire philosophy cannot be validated or confirmed by science. For instance, moral questions cannot be entirely answered by science alone. Science may help you figure out how to achieve a given value; and it may establish that a given value is unachievable; but it cannot tell you which achievable value one should pursue. Complex questions dealing with causes of history or politics or economics or sociology also cannot always be determined through science, because of the inability to isolate variables and run experimental tests. But when you do have a question about a matter of fact that is amenable to scientific investigation, then, if you want to be empirically responsible, you must consult science for the answer of the question, because scientific knowledge is the most reliable form of knowledge that we have.

Jay: "If you're looking for a scientific lab report or a peer-reviewed journal 'proving' that rational self-interest leads to happiness, well, I don't think that's possible. But I also don't think that damages the case for Objectivism, either."

What it does it lessen the reliability of the claim. Again, scientific knowledge is the most reliable and exact form of knowledge we have. We were able to get a man to the moon using that form of knowledge. Non-scientific knowledge, on the other hand, tends to be less reliable. That's why non-scientific knowledge claims on any subject that's in the least complex and non-trivial are often subject heated controversy. Unlike science, very hard to establish a consensus, because no reliable method of validation or experimental testing is possible.

Anonymous said...

There is a real distinction between the conclusions of philosophy and the conclusions of science, and I challenge anyone on this site to give an argument against this distinction which is not itself based on some philosophic preconceptions.

But the fact that there is a distinction between philosophy and science does not imply that philosophy is "non-empirical." Philosophy and science both depend on observations, but on different kinds. Philosophy is based on common sense observations that anyone can make--and which scientists *themselves* must make even to begin their scientific research. On the basis of these most common of observations, philosophy then formulates generalizations that are universally applicable and the fundamental starting-points of all other areas of human knowledge, including science.

Does this mean that philosophy "sets the terms" for science? In one sense yes, in another sense no. In the most literal of senses, philosophy really does set the terms, by defining *some* of the very terms scientists will use to formulate their theories. See, for example, my discussion of the concept CONCEPT. How will developmental psychologists investigate concept-formation in children without first having a philosophic understanding of what a concept is, so they know how to recognize when children form particular concepts?

In another sense, philosophy also sets the terms for science by identifying the most basic metaphysical facts that circumscribe the boundaries of all human cognition. The law of non-contradiction would be one example. Any scientific theory that leads to contradictions is thereby invalidated "by philosophy"--though this is just another way of saying that the theory has been invalidated by the facts (which philosophy only reminds, are not in fact contradictory).

But in another sense, of course philosophy does not set the terms for science. It does not promote a research program or predict the results of that research. It says to the scientist: research whatever you want, but use a logical method to do this, and if you do, we'll listen to you. That's all.

I imagine, however, that authors of this site might say there are other examples in which Objectivists say "philosophy sets the terms for science," examples which the authors would object. The author seems to object to philosophers reminding scientists about the "proper meaning of words," and suggests that doing so is just "playing with words." But--and here again we see how scientists too must make philosophic presuppositions--you are presupposing a nominalistic theory of concepts if you think there are no objective standards for proper definition.

Other posts on this site have suggested that Rand's theory of concepts is of little philosophic importance, but it could not be of greater importance when it comes to its applicability to the theory of definitions. You cannot dismiss Objectivist criticisms of definitions without disputing that theory, and you cannot dispute that theory without offering an alternative philosophic theory of definitions and concepts of your own.

To remind those who have forgotten, AR's theory is that not every concept we can form is valid. This is a broader sense of validity than the usual sense in which it is applied to valid arguments, but it suggests that there is a proper method to the formation of concepts, and scientists who do not exploit it are not following a logical method. (Logic is not just deductive logic.) Some concepts highlight superficial similarities from which little can be learned; others highlight fundamental similarities which permit one to hold knowledge in essentials. We should form concepts that reflect fundamental similarities, because essentialization enables us to condense our knowledge in highly economical form. Definitions help reveal whether or not a concept has been formed in a good way or a bad way, and it is for this reason that definitions may be criticized.

The Objectivist theory of definitions does in fact owe much to Aristotle's, but if the implication is that Aristotelian definitions are matters of "playing with words," this could not be further from the truth. For all that this site has to say about how "anti-empirical" Objectivism is, the fact is that the Aristotelian/Objectivist theory of definitions is the only theory in existence that treats definitions as justified empirically. Whether or not we define man as the rational animal is an empirical question, depending on whether or not we observe man's rationality to explain all or most of his distinguishing characteristics. Aristotle's theory, though not as well-developed as AR's, was similarly empirical in orientation, and certainly not the nominalistic theory that was later adopted by medieval scholastics. (Aristotle was widely misinterpreted for centuries, but the past 50 years of contemporary Aristotle scholarship has corrected many of these misinterpretations).

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>You cannot dismiss Objectivist criticisms of definitions without disputing that theory, and you cannot dispute that theory without offering an alternative philosophic theory of definitions and concepts of your own.

But we do, Anon:

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2007/05/aristotles-secret-revolt-against-reason.html

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>So far I do find myself agreeing with Jim, especially on his refutations of determinism.

The issue is not whether you agree with him, Jay. I'm not a determinist myself...;-) It's whether his theories and/or refutations have empirical standing.

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

I do think that introspective reports that we have free will count for some evidence that free will is correct.

It's also true that we may intepret such reports based on our prior committments and also that free will is hard to reconcile with what we know about physics and chemistry.

Jay said...

As I mentioned in my first post, I don't see how you can "empirically" prove free will the way you empirically prove the weight of a soda bottle.

Neither Jim nor anyone else can hold up a test tube, look inside, and declare, "This organism has free will!"

Like Jim says, free will is self-evident in all that we do.

It's like Rush says..

"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." ;)

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>As I mentioned in my first post, I don't see how you can "empirically" prove free will the way you empirically prove the weight of a soda bottle.

Right. So why say so? Why not just say that it's a tentative piece of evidence in a highly complex field that no-one has the real answer to..

I gave Jim plenty of opportunity to put it that way - even ran it through that way myself. But he just plain wouldn't go there.

Plus the determinists have a standard reply that "introspective" reports are themselves merely the physical results of electrical and chemical reactions. To demonstrate otherwise you'd have to show how, say, something non-physical pre-empted these processes.

Jay said...

But I don't see that as not having a "real" answer. Without free will, a person could not even dispute that we have it.

Yes, our brains are made of chemical and electric compounds, but consider the brain's unique capabilities. The most powerful computer on Earth can't introspect. It can't identify things it does poorly and improve itself. It can't decide to stop being lazy and start being focused.

If evidence is what you're looking for, look at the differences in how people live and behave in different parts of the world. All of these differences are because people chose to live in a certain way.

In this context, free will can almost be considered an "axiom." It is implicit in everything we do as human beings.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>In this context, free will can almost be considered an "axiom." It is implicit in everything we do as human beings.

I suppose the key difference in our viewpoints here is that I don't consider "axioms" as empirical evidence. Why? If something is axiomatic, you don't need empirical evidence to test it. Why look around at all? You already know the answer.

An axiom, from one point of view, is a wonderful incontovertible proof of something or other. From a more critical point of view, it is merely an unfalsifiable claim; something that tries to prove too little to be really useful. A table is a table! What do we learn from that? (by the same token, imagine a contradiction as a statement that tries to prove too much ).

Jay said...

If something is axiomatic, you don't need empirical evidence to test it. Why look around at all? You already know the answer.

That's more or less what I'm saying. Of course, you can't think of free will as an axiom in the way that "existence exists" is an axiom, but it's implicit in so much of our lives that is seems foolish to dispute it.

It's not that I didn't read the arguments for determinism. I did, and they will probably weigh on me for a good several days after tonight. But I just cannot reconcile them with the radical (and apparently self-induced) differences I see in the people I know, never mind people from other cultures or parts of the world.

I realize from reading your posts on the forum that you don't consider this empirical evidence. However it looks like a pretty airtight case to me.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>It's not that I didn't read the arguments for determinism. I did, and they will probably weigh on me for a good several days after tonight. But I just cannot reconcile them with the radical (and apparently self-induced) differences I see in the people I know, never mind people from other cultures or parts of the world.

Hmmm. Jay, do you know the basic arguments for determinism? Laplace and all that. Remarks above suggest you might not. For example, diversity is not an argument against determinism. Go have a look at Daniel Dennett for the 411. Can't talk now, will get back later.

Jay said...

I will check it out. By the arguments, I meant the arguments offered on the Richard Dawkins forum.

Wells said...

Anonymous, and everyone else, I guess. Philosophy and Introspection will help you find things that need to be tested scientifically. However the products of Philosophy or introspection alone are not knowledge.
They are guesses, maybe even very good guesses, but guesses nevertheless. Not that there's anything wrong with that, without guesses, there can be no hypothesis, and without hypothesis there can be no knowledge.
For instance someone may 'feel' free will or think free will exists because that's what Ayn Rand said. However none of that means that such free will is actually there. That someone may even derive experiments that assume that there is free will.
If the experiments are successful, then the researcher can assume that free will exists until and unless they conduct experiments that fail. If the experiments are not successful, they shouldn't assume that free will exists.

Michael Prescott said...

Neil wrote,
>I do think that introspective reports that we have free will count for some evidence that free will is correct.

I agree. And of course, if our will is not free, then we have no choice about what conclusions to hold - which renders our reasoning processes invalid and makes the whole debate pointless!

>free will is hard to reconcile with what we know about physics and chemistry.

Classical physics, maybe, but what about quantum physics? As I understand it, there are some interpretations of QM that are fully consistent with free will.

I know the standard response: quantum effects don't apply to the macroscopic world. But recent experiments with buckyballs, not to mention the old problem of Schrodinger's cat, seem to suggest otherwise.

Even if quantum effects were limited to the subatomic scale, they might still be relevant to brain function, if quantum tunneling is a factor in the transmission of signals via neurotransmitters.

In any case, if we have to choose between the necessarily tentative and incomplete theories of physics and the self-evident experience of free will in our daily lives, I'm using my free will to vote for the latter.

Anonymous said...

If QM tunneling was a way to alter the course of the future, wouldn't any creature that even slightly stumbled upon this trick use it? Why just humans with this trick?

Consider bacteria which has learned to harness all kinds of phenomenon (light generation, energy extraction from volcanic vents, etc..) wouldn't they be able to also stumble upon this QM tunneling to alter the future?

It's hard to see how a nanoscale manipulation inside a cell leading to an alteration of its surroundings (ability to change the deterministic future) would not be common with all of life.

This isn't disproof that QM tunneling is a source of free will, just something to ponder why just humans (or primates, or mammals, ...) have tapped into this trick and not other simpler life forms.

Dragonfly said...

First, there is strong empirical evidence that the brain in functional terms can be described as a classical, and therefore deterministic system. See for example the references given in the discussion on the Dawkins forum. Second, and that is the point that so many people fail to understand and therefore come to the wrong conclusion: determinism at the underlying, physiological level does not imply determinism at the conscious, intentional level. Therefore you cannot conclude from the lack of determinism in conscious thoughts that the underlying mechanism is not deterministic. Whether we call a system deterministic or not depends on the level of description.

A simple example: a description of a computer at the level of atoms and elementary particles is not deterministic, due to the essentially random character of QM. Nevertheless a description of the same computer in functional terms of bits and logic gates is a deterministic system, the computer is after all the deterministic system par excellence. And if we describe a particular program in terms of its functionality (what it takes as input and gives as output), this may not be a deterministic system (the description in functional states may contain insufficient information), while a description in terms of the softwarecode is deterministic. So we see that one physical system (a computer with software) may be indeterministic, deterministic and again indeterministic, depending on the level of description.

And therefore the whole "problem" of "free will" isn't a problem at all, it is an imaginary problem. The system of our consciousness in terms of conscious thoughts is not deterministic, as a state description of this system is far from complete: one single thought may correspond to gazillions of different underlying mechanisms. So from a description in terms of thoughts, we can never predict what future thoughts will be, and that gives us the illusion that we are free to choose among different alternatives. There is in every particular situation only one outcome (ever seen more than one outcome at the same time?), only we cannot know which one it will be, and therefore we see many other outcomes as real possibilities. It is our ignorance of our own brain processes that creates the illusion of free will.

It is impossible to conclude from introspection whether our thoughts are based on deterministic processes or not, as we cannot be aware of these processes. Every thought, every observation is itself based on such processes. Arguments from introspection are therefore invalid.

Arguments that we cannot know anything, that there is no reason to be ethical etc. etc. are therefore also invalid. Our conscious reasoning is no less valid if it is based on a deterministic substrate, as all the conclusions we draw, are drawn at the conscious, intentional level, regardless what happens at lower levels. What happens under the hood is irrelevant in terms of where we are driving (even if it is of course essential for the possibility of driving).

dragonfly said...

Michael: "Classical physics, maybe, but what about quantum physics? As I understand it, there are some interpretations of QM that are fully consistent with free will."

No, that is Quantum Quackery. QM might in principle introduce random elements in the system, but randomness doesn't in any way create "free will".

Michael: "I know the standard response: quantum effects don't apply to the macroscopic world. But recent experiments with buckyballs, not to mention the old problem of Schrodinger's cat, seem to suggest otherwise."

Irrelevant. See the extensive references I've given on the Dawkins forum. There you can find everything about buckyballs, Schrödinger's cat, Schrödinger's kittens and also extensive arguments why the brain can be treated as a classical system. Speculating without that knowledge is therefore a rather futile activity.

Michael Prescott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Prescott said...

Dragonfly,

As I understand it, the buckyball experiments show that quantum interference effects take place at the molecular scale. Now, as for what this means ... there are different interpretations, none universally accepted. I incline toward an admittedly radical interpretation, namely, that consciousness is at least as fundamental to reality as matter/energy, and that an observing consciousness actively participates in the manifestation of physical reality. You can call this quackery if it pleases you.

I admit that this preference of mine is tied in with my general philosophy of life, which is quite mystical and has room for many notions that you and others on this blog would probably regard as baseless or absurd. So it goes.

Notice I don't say that I know for sure that this interpretation of QM is correct. But to my layman's eye it offers a neat solution to the conundrums of QM, and it fits in nicely with the larger worldview I embrace.

Since all interpretations of QM are controversial, it seems reasonable to me to pick the one that best suits my larger outlook. No doubt people with a more "naturalist" or "physicalist" outlook, such as those on the Dawkins forum, will prefer a different interpretation. At this stage of our knowledge, a preference is all it can be, since there is no "theory of everything" to settle the matter. (And even if there were a theory of everything, it would not be the last word; it could always be superseded by some better theory.)

As far as philosophy goes, the test for me is what works. I've found that my rather mystical philosophy works much better for me than the more materialistic view I used to hold, in that it has made me more contented, calmer, and less judgmental about myself and others. But I'm not assuming that what works for me will work for someone else. People have different temperaments and sentiments.

Besides, if we all agreed on everything, where would be the fun in that? :-)

Daniel Barnes said...

The key point about quantum uncertainty is that it doesn't really add anything to the free will problem. No one would say a flipped coin is exercising volition. That's effectively the situation with quantum mechanics.

The (highly speculative) arguments for free will operating at a quantum level have been with us since the '30s, and this problem became obvious early on. The most prominent modern defender of this idea is Roger Penrose, who seems to argue that "consciousness" operates "through the cracks" if you like of quantum uncertainty at a very small organic level (microtubules in the brain). Incidentally, it is not clear that Penrose wholly supports a non-deterministic picture of consciousness. He is mainly arguing against the computational model of consciousness. He regards it as a "missing science" which perhaps we will find laws for.

Anonymous said...

The unscientific nature of Objectivism was actually the first thing that struck me as odd and eventually (thank heavens) turned me off Rand.

A motor that converts static electricity into kinetic energy? give me a break

And Binswanger's quote "All these reports are either false or utterly misleading due to being on wrong philosophical premises. It's pointless to argue against them on factual grounds." is very telling. He implies that science should conform to Objectivist philosophy. It's like creation scientists who think that science should conform to the bible. Objectivists should just up and say that they believe in what they do, not entirely because of factual reasons or logic, but because they want to for various other personal reasons.

I would go read the stuff on Dawkin's site, but I dislike Dawkins quite as heartily as I dislike Rand, so I don't want to jump through the hoops of signing up for his site yet. Maybe later...

Michael Prescott said...

>The key point about quantum uncertainty is that it doesn't really add anything to the free will problem.

The argument, as I've encountered it, is that consciousness chooses which brain states to actualize. There is a spectrum of possible brain states at any given moment, and consciousness causes one state to manifest at the exclusion of the others. Thus, consciousness chooses which thoughts the brain will process. Of course this hypothesis requires us to see consciousness as something more than an epiphenomenon of the brain.

Consider an analogy between the collapse of the wave function in QM and the act of making a decision. In the first case (according to certain QM interpretations), there is a spectrum of possible outcomes, and when an observer's consciousness is applied, one outcome is actualized at the expense of all others. In the second case, there is a spectrum of possible options until you focus on the problem and collapse the options down to one selection at the expense of all others. The outcomes/options exist simultaneously as potentials until the observation/decision is made, at which point the spectrum collapses to a single point.

This is not a perfect analogy - no analogy is perfect - but for me it provides a useful way of thinking about the paradoxical nature of quantum phenomena. We have all had the experience of holding several possibilities in mind at once, without committing to any of them initially. It is possible that physical reality is somewhat the same way - it, too, holds multiple possibilities in a pending state until an observer intervenes.

>No one would say a flipped coin is exercising volition.

In terms of your analogy, it's not the coin that exercises volition, but rather the consciousness that observes it. Given two possible outcomes - heads or tails - consciousness actualizes one at the expense of the other. The analogy falls short because coin flips are not quantum events in the same way that the transmission of neural signals may be - emphasis on may, since we do not know, in detail, how neurotransmitters cross the synaptic junction.

>I dislike Dawkins quite as heartily as I dislike Rand

Ditto. David Stove does quite a thorough demolition job on Dawkins and evolutionary psychology in his book Darwinian Fairytales. If you dislike Dawkins, you would probably enjoy this book (if you haven't read it already).

Jay said...

A motor that converts static electricity into kinetic energy? give me a break

A fictional device in a fictional book is hardly proof of the "unscientific nature of Objectivism."

How about an analysis of which premises Binswanger was talking about? That would lend itself to a comparison to creationism more than simply asserting your opinion.

Jay said...

To use a similar example:

I've often refused to debate costs of universal healthcare vs. market healthcare because universal healthcare is immoral. It too is "based on the wrong premise", and to argue against its practicality would be conceding to the utilitarian view.

Of course, market healthcare is less expensive when all things are considered. But the point is that arguing from that angle grants utilitarianism undue respect.

Anonymous said...

What about creating an ARCHN Forum?

* No loyalty oath
* full edits
* no moderation of posts
* minimal # of sub-categories

Dragonfly said...

Michael, I think you have written some excellent posts/articles about Rand. The story about Hickman was a real eye opener, and I seem to remember also a funny parody. But for the rest...

Robert Campbell said...

As one of those giving Jim Valliant a hard time over at RichardDawkins.net, let me caution readers here not to take Mr. Valliant as exemplary of anything except zealotry.

It's been clear as long as he has been promoting his book online that Mr. Valliant is an incompetent exponent of the philosophical viewpoint that he claims to champion.

Mr. Valliant is a minor-league acolyte of the Orthodox Objectivist leader Leonard Peikoff. Mr. Valliant was assigned the dirty job of trying to discredit two accounts of Ayn Rand's life and actions that were not flattering enough to please the Orthodoxy--and, to make matters worse, were written by former rivals of the Orthodox leader who had been expelled from Rand's circle. No on else had volunteered for this dirty (and evidently foolhardy) assignment, and the Ayn Rand Institute (purposely, I think) didn't put any of its better writers or scholars on it.

There are problems with Ayn Rand's own views about philosophy and how it relates to science. These have been exacerbated by some of her disciples, most notably by Leonard Peikoff who now rules over the orthodox regions of Rand-land.

Better to concentrate on Dr. Peikoff's "proof" that there can be no empty space; or his indignant rejection of Quantum Mechanics on allegedly philosophical grounds; or his current cultivation of David Harriman's, er, revisionist physics; or his flamingly ignorant effusions about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem; or his categorical exclusion of evolutionary considerations from philosophy.

Mr. Valliant can't even correctly recite what Dr. Peikoff taught him.

Robert Campbell

Daniel Barnes said...

Robert:
>Better to concentrate on Dr. Peikoff's "proof" that there can be no empty space; or his indignant rejection of Quantum Mechanics on allegedly philosophical grounds; or his current cultivation of David Harriman's, er, revisionist physics; or his flamingly ignorant effusions about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem; or his categorical exclusion of evolutionary considerations from philosophy.

Hi Robert,

I think that's where we'll be going with it over time. However there's no reason to exclude water carriers like Valliant from such a critique for the simple reason that at least he fronts up. Peikoff, Harriman et al remain difficult to pin down, as they 1) tend to release their dubious views in audio format only, making it both time consuming and expensive to track down what usually turn out to be vague and evasive statements anyway 2) they do not engage with the wider science community, so we can gain no insights that way either. Hence we have to use the likes of Valliant to gauge the leanings of the Randian orthodoxy (incidentally, most of the Objectivist commenters here so far have defended Valliant's pseudoscientific approach). And of course, by making it hard to critique openly, Peikoff, Harriman et al's evasion of direct scrutiny itself speaks volumes.

Neil Parille said...

Dan & Robert,

I think there is a parallel here with Peikoff & Valliant on Rand's life. Peikoff has, from what I can tell, been somewhat circumspect on Rand saying that she had a temper, but I don't believe actually denying some of the other traits described by the Brandens. And he has retreated into the claim that Barbara Branden's biography is "arbitrary."

Incidentally, Anne Heller will be publishing a biography of Rand in 2008. ARI associate Shoshana Milgram is working on a biography of Rand up to 1957. This is what her Virginia Tech bio says:

"I am currently writing a study of the life of Ayn Rand up to 1957 (i.e., from her birth in St. Petersburg, Russia, to the publication of her final novel, Atlas Shrugged); my project, which is based on access to primary sources, presents her vision of the human ideal—the individual, rational mind in triumphant action—as the integrating principle of her public and private life." (This strikes me as something different than a nuts and bolts biography.)

I just downloaded an 18 hour course from the Teaching Company on the Peloponnesian War for $49.95. Compare that to the very expensive prices for the ARI courses from Peikoff and Harriman.

-Neil Parille

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil cites Milgram
>...my project, which is based on access to primary sources, presents her vision of the human ideal—the individual, rational mind in triumphant action—as the integrating principle of her public and private life." (This strikes me as something different than a nuts and bolts biography.)

Err yes, rather. Sounds more like "PARC 2: TRIUMPH OF THE ULTIMATE OBJECTIVIST." I can't wait...;-)

Dragonfly said...

Yes, this sounds like a real hagiography!

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>What about creating an ARCHN Forum?
* No loyalty oath
* full edits
* no moderation of posts
* minimal # of sub-categories

Hey Anon

Maybe one day. I'm thinking of upgrading the site next year sometime for a bit of extra functionality, but a forum would probably consume way more time than Greg and I want to devote to it, even if unmoderated. And of course, the idea of doing without our 27-page ARCHNblog Official Loyalty Oath is unthinkable...;-)

Robert Campbell said...

Of the two forthcoming biographies, I expect much more from Anne Heller's, because it won't be bent to fit any official agenda.

Shoshana Milgram is writing under the auspices of the Ayn Rand Institute, which guarantees hagiographical tendencies. However, she is also the only genuine lit crit person they've got. I anticipate that many of her thoughts about Rand's evolution as a writer will be worthwhile.

Robert Campbell

Anonymous said...

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Michael Prescott said...

Michael, I think you have written some excellent posts/articles about Rand. The story about Hickman was a real eye opener, and I seem to remember also a funny parody. But for the rest...

You mean you don't believe in ESP, psychokinesis, reincarnation, channeling, life after death, or the Earl of Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare's plays?

I'm stunned!

:-)

Dragonfly said...

I don't know much about Shakespeare, so on that subject I'm an agnostic...