Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 11

Conclusion. Having briefly run through some of the major challenges posed by the Cognitive Revolution to orthodox Objectivism, a recapitulation of the main points would be in order.

1. Rand's blank slate view of human nature, particularly her denial that human choice (i.e., free will) is not "saddled with tendencies," is not a plausible position.

2. There is no compelling evidence to support Rand's assertion that emotions are a product of an individual's premises.

3. The Randian view that nothing gets in the "subconscious" without first being in the consciousness is grossly implausible, and about as scientifically creditable as the view that the earth is flat.

4. Rand greatly exaggerates the role that consciousness plays in concept-formation, leading her to place far too much importance on definitions and other trappings of formalized, conscious thinking.

5. Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" theory of concept demonstrates the poverty of Rand's classical view of concepts.

6. Rand's view that "Reason is man's only means of grasping reality and acquiring knowledge" is falsified by the overwhelming evidence for intuitive forms of thinking (such as Oakeshott's "practical knowledge"), which do not use "reason."

7. Rand's view that "Emotions are not tools of cognition" are falsified by cutting edge research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

8. Rand's belief that epistemological truth is best attained through introspection is refuted by the view, common in the cognitive science world, that "unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought." Introspection, then, would only have access to 5 percent of thought! Not a good vantage point for understanding human cognition!

9. Since most of human thought is hidden from introspection, anyone who claims to understand cognition from their introspective observations is talking through their hat; and any epistemology found on such slim pickings must, ipso facto, be largely speculative. This is the major problem with Randian epistemology. It is mostly speculative, rather than empirical and scientific. Rand is not an authority on human cognition. Cognitive scientists, who study human cognition empirically, using scientific methods of research and the rigorous system of peer review to catch errors, are likely to know a great deal more about cognition than Rand.

10. The cognitive unconscious and the important role of tacit, intuitive knowledge constitutes a huge blow to foundationalism, which is so central to Objectivism, particularly to the Objectivist theory of history. Non-verbal forms of knowledge, which form a critical component of human knowledge, cannot be proved or validated or deduced from axioms or from basic truths.

Having refuted the worst of Rand's epistemological pretensions, we can now examine some of the other parts of her system with greater depth and insight. Among the many lessons that can be drawn from the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps the most important has to do with the inevitable conflict between Objectivist methodology on the one hand and the understanding of human nature on the other. Human nature is a family resemblance concept which is partially based on tacit, intuitive knowledge. Consequently, no detailed and practically effective understanding of human nature can be achieved through the sort of "reason" based essentialism advocated by Rand. The Objectivist definition of man as a "rational animal" provides no real insight into human nature and could not be used as a reliable guide in predicting how people are likely to behave in a given situation. There are individuals in politics, in business, in law enforcement, in the criminal underworld who are very savvy at guessing the probable behavior of strangers in special circumstances. This knowledge is very useful and gives them an advantage in the competition for preeminence in society.

17 comments:

Jay said...

Greg/Dan,

I am thinking about buying "Looking For Spinoza" by Damasio. Would that be good, or is there an earlier text I should check out first?

HmBram said...

Some time ago I engaged in a lengthy email dialog with (I suspect) a particularly belligerent and dogmatic Objectivist. He took the position with me that, if I wished for the privilege of conversing with him, it was incumbent upon me first to reduce my professional work to the minimum necessary to support my family and engage in a deep and thorough study of Rand and Peikoff. Without that, nothing I could express would have a valid conceptual foundation, and would therefore be an utter waste of his time.

He claimed that Objectivist Epistemology is a logically perfect system, developed with "Pure Reason" from "Absolute Truths" (PRAT as I've come to call it for short) and that, while failing to structure my thinking accordingly, I was "Intellectually Bankrupt"!

Now, I happen to have 35 years of experience in software development and systems architecture. It is my experience that the difficulty of retaining in one's mind the inter-related details of more than a handful of conceptual structures increases as some power function of the number of elements involved, so you can imagine I reacted not a little sarcastically to his claim to logical perfection. Software testing is a broad and subtle engineering discipline, and the only basis for proving a "logically perfect" system. When I enquired how Objectivist Epistemology had been tested, he retorted that, "It's not the same thing", and refused to discuss it further.

My knowledge of Objectivist Epistemology doesn't go much beyond what he presented, (though I've read Atlas Shrugged several times, Fountainhead and "A Guide for the New Intellectual"). So, I'd like to ask --

- is logical perfection indeed a claim of Objectivists, or merely a ridiculous embellishment by the particular Objectivist in question?
- if the claim is made, where can I get a copy of the test procedure and test results?
- is there any foundation for his "It's not the same thing" dismissal?

HmBram

Jay said...

The person you were arguing with sounds like a tool. I would be embarassed by him, if I were an orthodox Objectivist.

To answer your questions:

- I just finished Intro to Objectivist Epistemology and I don't even recall "Pure Reason" or "Absolute Truths" being mentioned. This might just be the person talking out of his ass. The Objectivists I've spoken to and known don't claim to be logically perfect.

- See above.

- I don't even know what he means by "it's not the same thing." It seems like what he was grasping for is "you can't test it, it just works." In either case, that's nonsense. That said, I think ITOE is about the most logical, efficient way to hold concepts in your mind, not the exact way in which they naturally form.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Jay,

I'd recommend starting with Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens, which provides the basic framework of how he views consciousness.

Ellen

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

I would start with either Descartes' Error or The Feeling of What Happens. The former is Damasio's most accessible, and forms sort of prelude to Looking for Spinoza, while the latter, though his most difficult, is also his most fundamental work.

HmBram said...

Thanks for you very fast reply Jay,

Jay said: "...sounds like a tool." I'm not sure what you mean by a tool -- perhaps it's equivalent to "prat" in England.

Jay said: "The Objectivists I've spoken to and known don't claim to be logically perfect." I'm glad to hear that. This character's ideas were so extreme, I couldn't believe they were at the back of such a popular movement. I mean he even talked of privatization of the seas!!

Jay said: "you can't test it, it just works." Well I tried to piece together the ideas, and he seemed to be saying that conceptual thinking is the way the mind itself works. But, if that is the case, where is the advantage of Objectivism if everyone thinks that way in any case? I mean, if it's a question of having right or wrong concepts, in a naturally conceptual organism, isn't one's developmental process ultimately a *subjective* exercise in selection? And, if so, how can you ever know, without testing, whether you've got it right or wrong?

The bottom line is this: All logic can and must be tested. If it can't be tested, it can't be called logical. If Objectivism is logical, it must be tested to be proven correct. If it can't be tested, they can make no claim on logic at all, and without a logical foundation they can make no claim to Reason!

I suppose one could argue that Objectivism is "partially" logical. If so, isn't the non-logical part merely subjective prejudice and preference?

(Certainly, the visceral, if not erotic, satisfaction this particular Objectivist displayed when flinging his "Intellectually Bankrupt" charge in my face, showed a hefty dose of subjective prejudice and preference.)

HmBram

Anonymous said...

is objective reality history, or is
it within five feet of you, at all
times?

Moony said...

HmBram sez:

"This character's ideas were so extreme, I couldn't believe they were at the back of such a popular movement. I mean he even talked of privatization of the seas!!"

Privatisation of the seas is a new one on me, but it's not untypical of some of the thinking I've seen expressed on Objectivist BBs. I'd really like to know whether it's a logical consequence of Randist beliefs or not.

Wells said...

Hmbram asked

- is logical perfection indeed a claim of Objectivists, or merely a ridiculous embellishment by the particular Objectivist in question?
- if the claim is made, where can I get a copy of the test procedure and test results?
- is there any foundation for his "It's not the same thing" dismissal?

Hmbram asks the hard questions. And I will try to answer them.

For question number one. I don't really know much about Objectivist throught. however there does seem to be a strain of it that would like to have arguments that are comparable to mathematical proof. (I'll point to this link Here for those amongst us that don't believe me.) However there are also other Objectivists who don't think their argumentation is as precise as mathematics.

For question number two, you will find no such document.

For question three (Is there any foundation for his "It's not the same thing" dismissal?). This is the hard question. The question I kind of hear really is 'Can I use the techniques of mathematics (specifically proofs of program correctness) to prove a philosophy true?' and 'If not, is Philosophy even Knowledge?' My answers are tending towards Probably Not, for the first part, and Kind of, for the second part.
Is it possible to have proofs of philosophies that are as rigorous as mathematical proofs? Yes. Are you or I or that Objectivist you ran into smart enough to devise them? No. There is a whole lot we just don't know about somethings like literature, art philosophy, ect. I can even explain the scope of my ignorance.
For the second part. Mathematics is probably one of the simple things. You have axioms, you prove stuff. stuff is true based on the axioms. And all is good. Science is a bit harder, you have math, and you have observations about reality, and now you have to predict things. Because of the way the world works, you cannot really be sure if what you are predicting is true, but it can still be useful. Philosophy is hard. People who study it tend to not know reality, this makes it harder for their philosophies to conform to it. Also predictions are harder to make. And while people try to do axiomatic proof in philosophy, if you pull axioms out of your ass, your conclusions will be just as worthless as something that you pulled out of your ass. Philosophers can say true things, but it is not reasonable to count on them doing it as frequently as mathematicians or scientists.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Wells wrote:

And while people try to do axiomatic proof in philosophy, if you pull axioms out of your ass, your conclusions will be just as worthless as something that you pulled out of your ass.

Um, you mean...

SISO (like GIGO)?

Ellen

HmBram said...

Dear Wells

Thanks for your reply and sorry for the delay.

Your response echoes my experience and thinking, yet the purported Objectivists I've conversed with insist on Certainty. You say, "Because of the way the world works, you cannot really be sure if what you are predicting is true, but it can still be useful." My understanding is that Objectivism rejects that and insists you can be certain about everything!?!? The particular Objecvtivist I refer to has spent most of his life hiding in Academia and studying Objectivism, so it's not hard to see why he would have such a view. Rand experienced the Russian Revolution -- why would she insist on Certainty?



Regards,
HmBram

Daniel Barnes said...

HmBram:
>the purported Objectivists I've conversed with insist on Certainty.

Hi HmBram,

Objectivism ostensibly denies skeptical uncertainty with considerable vehemence; but with considerable irony, it turns out Rand unwittingly embraced it! For they qualify their "certainty" by saying it is "contextual" i.e. they claim they can be absolutely certain something is absolutely true within the context of their current knowledge. So if they have seen some brown eggs, an Objectivist says she can be absolutely certain that "all eggs are brown." However, if she then comes across a white egg, she now says that she is absolutely certain "not all eggs are brown". So in Objectivism you can say one day you're absolutely certain of a proposition, and the next day say the same of its opposite! Now if this whole theory sounds like merely a banal, oxmoronic play on words that fudges the issue rather than solves it,(contextual absolute) you're right. Welcome to Objectivist epistemology.

There is a secondary generic argument which is invoked in support of this oxymoron which is no better but nonetheless serves to further obfuscate the situation: that is, that the usual non-Objectivist meaning of "certainty" is actually an invalid, false one. This argument holds that such a meaning is "Platonic" or mystical, because one would have to be "omniscient" to be absolutely certain to that degree, and as man is not omniscient to uphold such a meaning is "anti-man." (Objectivists call this the standard of omniscience).

But this argument is just bull puckey. For one does not have to be "omniscient" to figure that what you think is true today might be false tomorrow. You can get there by both logical means (via the problem of induction) and experiential means (ie everyone has, as they have lived their life, now and again found that things they passionately believed were true were in fact false). So "omniscience" never need enter into it.

However, just to complete the demolition of these Objectivist lines of argument, there is one more very important and often overlooked issue: there is actually nothing wrong with postulating an abstract, unachievable standard as an "absolute" in the first place. Far from being "mystical", or "anti-man" or "anti-life" in fact we appeal to such standards all the time, and they are of the greatest usefulness to humanity! As an illustrative example I offer "absolute zero." Here is a purely theoretical standard we may well never achieve (there are quantum-theoretical considerations which prevent it). However, it serves as a standard to aim at, to get closer too - in the process of which our knowledge grows immensely. Plus, by rejecting such a standard, Objectivism would have to claim that whatever technology and science had achieved to date in low temperature, was "absolute"; until the next break through, which would be "absoluter" than the last "absolute"...;-) An absurd situation that in fact results in relativism and/or subjectivism, and the destruction of standards. But Rand never really thought through the consequences of many of her pronouncements, so we should not be surprised by this.

Jay said...

Quoting at length from OPAR:

"He will find that the discoveries expand his understanding; that he learns more about the conditions on which his conclusions depend; that he moves from relatively generalized, primitive observations to increasingly detailed, sophisticated formulations.

Some time ago, medical researchers learned to identify four types of blood: A, B, AB, and O. When blood was transfused from one individual to another, some of these blood types proved to be compatible while others were not (an undesirable reaction, hemolysis, occurred.) For example, the blood of an A-type donor was compatible with that of an A-type recipient, but not with that of a B-type. Later, a new discovery was made: in certain cases, an undesirable reaction occurred even when blood of Type A was given to an A-type recipient. Further investigation revealed another factory at work, the RH factor, which was found in the blood of some individuals but not others. The initial generalization (for short, "A bloods are compatible") was thus discovered to hold only under circumstances that had earlier been unidentified. Given this knowledge, the generalization had to be qualified ("A bloods are compatible of their RH factors are matched.")

The principle here is evident: since a later discovery rests hierarchically on earlier knowledge, it cannot contract its own base. The qualified formulation in no way clashes with the initial proposition, viz.: "Within the context of the circumstances so far known, A bloods are compatible." This proposition represented real knowledge when it was first reached, and it still does so; in fact, like all properly formulated truths, this truth is immutable. Within the context initially specified, A bloods are and always will be compatible."

Jay said...

Or, as he later sums up, "An immutable truth within the specified context."

HmBram said...

Daniel Barnes and Jay

I really appreciate your long, clear explanations. They reflect the same conclusions I came to, but could not have formulated so well.

Thanks,
HmBram

gregnyquist said...

OPAE: "The principle here is evident: since a later discovery rests hierarchically on earlier knowledge, it cannot contract its own base. The qualified formulation in no way clashes with the initial proposition."

What on earth does it mean to say that a discovery "rests hierarchically on earlier knowledge"? That is a rather abstruse and garbled way to represent what is going on in the blood compatibility scenario. Here's what occurred. At one time it was thought that all A bloods were compatible. Later, evidence demonstrated that this wasn't altogether true. So Peikoff wants us to believe that, before the contradicting evidence was discovered, we could be "contextually certain" that all A bloods were compatible, even though that statement is not true and would later be falsified! What's so horrible about admitting that we were wrong and moving on? Why do we have to engage in so many verbal somersaults merely so we can run around claiming were certain, when that certainty doesn't even mean we can't be wrong? Why do we have to flout and stomp all over common usage merely because we like the phrase "I can be certain"? After all, now that we have "contextualized" it, it doesn't actually mean what it says!

Anonymous said...

Since you dispute the existence of free will and the role of consciousness in concept-formation, can we then conclude that your entire essay of talking points is the product of involuntary, unconscious typing? I think so.

And since you are all so quick to deny logical perfection, you won't mind if I point out that your comments have logical holes. Thanks once again, loons, for pointing out the inherent flaws in your subjectivist world view.