Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ayn Rand Quotes of the Week 18/2/08

The Objectivist Ethics (p17-18):
"The pleasure-pain mechanism in the body of man - and
in the bodies of all living organisms that possess the
faculty of consciousness - serves as an automatic
guardian of the organism's life. The physical
sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the
organism is pursuing the *right* course of action. The
physical sensation of pain is a warning signal of
danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the
*wrong* course of action..."
But wait! On the very next page we find that... (p19)
"Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no
automatic course of action, no automatic set of
values. His senses do not tell him automatically what
is good for him or evil, what will benefit his life or
endanger it..."
When encountering statements like this, just remember that Ayn Rand always wrote and thought clearly, precisely, and without contradiction, not like other philosophers.

15 comments:

Jay said...

Nice try, but you're splitting hairs here. Touching a hot stove and intuitively knowing to back away is not a code of values or a course of action. It's a reaction to a sensation of pain. She could've been more careful with the wording but this is hardly a philosophical contradiction.

Anonymous said...

Jay's criticism is on the right track, but I think the following is more precise: A *signal* that something is right is not the same thing as *knowledge* that something is right. A signal is just that, a semi-reliable indicator--and certainly not a *code* of knowledge, which is what AR is speaking of here. Obviously pleasures and pains cannot respond to facts about things that indicate their *long-term* survival value. Just as there are optical illusions for the senses, there are also "value" illusions for the pleasure-pain mechanism. A straight stick can look bent in water, and a dangerous chemical can cause pleasure for certain organisms.

Your sarcasm at the end is not helpful.

Daniel Barnes said...

Actually fellas, I think it's you who are doing the hairsplitting here.

Firstly Jay:
"Touching a hot stove and intuitively knowing to back away is not a code of values or a course of action."

Couldn't be more incorrect. Of course backing away from a hot stove is a course of action! And an automatic (or "intuitive" if you like) one at that. What else would it be? As Von Mises would say, humans act. To try to deny this would be a truly heroic act of hairsplitting...;-) Further, this course of action is based on a code of values - an inbuilt, automatic one that has evolved as a survival mechanism. Pain is bad, pleasure is good. And she's roughly right. (However a key missing point which anonymous gets right, is that our automated systems can err; pain can be good for us, like in strenous exercise, and pleasure bad for us, like shooting recreational morphine. We should also note however, that Rand is already setting up an equivocation between the pragmatic senses of "right" and "wrong", (in the sense of the "right" or "wrong" piece of a puzzle, for example) and the moral senses of the terms.)

Then she turns around and tells us the exact opposite on the very next page: that man has no automatic courses of action, and no automatic code of "right" and "wrong." It's a flat contradiction, I'm sorry.

Anonymous on the other hand chooses a different hair to split, and tries to argue that a "signal" is somehow not "knowledge." To which I respond: Bushwah! I receive the following signal: · · · — — — · · ·. This means I now know someone is in trouble! If I see a green light, I now know the way is clear to go. If I receive a pain signal, I know something is wrong. And so forth.

So, sorry: I think this is yet another example of Rand saying something on one page then contradicting on the next. Happens all the time, as it does with lots of interesting philosophers; my sarcastic quote is merely aimed people who believe Ayn Rand is somehow immune from this.

khomus said...

Wouldn't her first quote mean animals are conscious, something I'm pretty sure she denies? I'm fairly sure we know that animals have a pleasure pain response mechanism. But I thought man was the only truly conscious being?

Daniel Barnes said...

khomus, you're not far off it. She says that animals don't have volition, which is Objectivist-speak for "free will." This makes them basically robotic, running a bunch of preset responses to stimuli. They don't have "conceptual" consciousnesses either - the ability to generalise, basically - merely "perceptual" consciousnesses, only aware of individual concretes and sensations. But before you take this too seriously, I think she is just bluffing her way through here. Pretty much any college dorm bull session would come up with these sorts of distinctions after a few beers. And terms like "perceptions" and "sensations" are used so vaguely, with no science whatever referred to, that they can be bent to fit around any inconvenient facts that might arrive.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

An animal's primary means of survival is pre-programmed instinct. Whatever capability for reason a certain animal may posses, it is not sufficient to live by reason as a primary means of making decisions. Hence animals remain in their wild state i.e. we don't see gorillas constructing buildings or implementing systems of rational law. An example of instinct without reason is a gazelle running from a lion. On sensing the lion the gazelle runs for it's life, but once caught by the neck with the lion behind it, it will often go still even though it is still able-bodied. A creature of reason, knowing that it is near death and wanting to live, will reason that an all out effort to save it's life is worthwhile, as it has nothing to lose. The gazelle is not in pain (yet) and has not developed a evolutionary response to this situation (possibly because it was of limited benefit once the lion had closed in) hence it just stands there oblivious to it's imminent fate.

Man is the only animal who has reason as his primary means of survival. Regardless of in-built flight or fight mechanisms eg the hot stove example, humans adjust their emotions and subsequent responses according to reason. For example, sailors and divers in very cold water environments consciously 'retrain' the reflex to inhale and hold air on immersion in freezing water (i.e. the saying 'take your breath away'.) Obeying the reflex will lessen your ability to deal with the emergency situation, so you retrain it because you consciously want to survive.

Another example that you won't like Daniel is the emotional response to altruism. Once an individual, usually a young adult coming out of their 'socialist' stage, is reasoned through the virtue of rational self-interest, their emotional responses to altruistic behaviour change (for the better!). I've seen this a few times myself.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

When encountering statements like this, just remember that Ayn Rand always wrote and thought clearly, precisely, and without contradiction, not like other philosophers.

This is weak. Plenty of Objectivists, including myself, believe that Ayn Rand was just another thinker building on a body of knowledge. She made substantial progress in determining the true nature of the human condition, but she wasn't infallible.

However, the significance of her work is up there with Newton or Einstein. This is what upsets certain people; for a variety of reasons they don't like that.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Michael Sutcliffe wrote:

However, the significance of her work is up there with Newton or Einstein. This is what upsets certain people; for a variety of reasons they don't like that.

No, I think that "what upsets certain people" is the insult to intellect involved in ranking the significance of AR's work as being of Newton/Einstein calibre.

Re your comment:

An animal's primary means of survival is pre-programmed instinct.:

There's a piece by Nathaniel Branden in, I believe, The Objectivist Newsletter which argues that the idea of "instinct" is an invalid idea even pertaining to animals. The piece isn't quoted in the Lexicon, Nathaniel having become Dr. Uncitable well before the Lexicon was compiled, and I couldn't find it on a quick look through the Newsletter's table of contents -- the type in that table of contents is too small for my eyes to focus on easily. Someone else might have the reference to hand...? If not, I'll try to find the piece later.

Ellen

Michael Sutcliffe said...

No, I think that "what upsets certain people" is the insult to intellect involved in ranking the significance of AR's work as being of Newton/Einstein calibre.

Well, that certainly upsets Ellen! :)

Please enlighten me with the 'instinct' thing. I'm not really familiar with what you're referring to.

Daniel Barnes said...

wascMichael Sutcliffe:
>However, the significance of her work is up there with Newton or Einstein.

I'm surprised you'd say this Michael, but I'm sure this implied slight against Rand is unintentional. For Newton and Einstein's discoveries were in the sciences; yet according to Objectivism, proper science can only proceed from proper philosophy, which is the master discipline. Thus Rand's discoveries must be far more fundamentally important than Newton's or Einstein's, particularly as the former's premises were seriously corrupted by religion and the latter's by Immanuel Kant. Thus Rand's significance for the human race is not just "up there" with those two, but surely far surpasses them? What errors did she make that an Objectivist might consider equal to being a Christian or a Kantian??!!

You do claim "she was not infallible" after all. I would be curious as to the specifics of her intellectual errors. In my experience Objectivists who say this then produce the following examples: 1) she was perhaps wrong about homosexuality being immoral
2) sometimes she could become unjustly angry.
and then qualify them as personal lapses rather than intellectual errors.

Do you have anything more serious in mind? If not, perhaps we might be more precise and say that while Rand was personally fallible - making at least two errors of this type - she was nonetheless intellectually infallible, and the system she discovered simply infallible, full stop. Would that be the case?

Jay said...

Daniel,

You know that a green light means go because it's a social convention that has been taught for generations. If you spent the first 15 years of your life in a jungle and suddenly wandered into civil society you would not know that. Pain is a completely inbuilt mechanism that requires no teaching to function. That's the difference.

As for Rand's intellectual errors, I'll offer one up: her theory of sex. While I personally do seek out women that I admire and esteem, it's flat-out absurd to say that everyone else does. I find this the most obvious flaw in her theory. Having been in high school 4 years ago and in college now I hear about people sleeping around all the time, and it aint because they like each other's premises. Often, people just wanna get it on.

I agree 100% with Greg that her theory of sex is largely due to her gender.

Ellen Stuttle said...

I referrred above to:

a piece by Nathaniel Branden in, I believe, The Objectivist Newsletter which argues that the idea of "instinct" is an invalid idea even pertaining to animals.

The quote I'm thinking of is in an "Intellectual Amunition Department" item, from the October 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, subject:

"Does man possess instincts?"

What he says about animal behavior is brief:

"The concept of 'instinct' was first used to account for complex patterns of animal behavior, such as migratory, mating and maternal behavior, that appeared inexplicable. But the concept is no less misleading when applied to animals. 'Instincts' explain nothing. An excellent example of the type of analysis, in this sphere, that is replacing 'explanation via instincts' may be found in Morgan and Stellar's Physiological Psychology (McGraw-Hill, 1950, pp. 402-417. Discussing the migratory behavior of salmon, the authors write: [There follows three paragraphs from the text.]"

Nathaniel is correct that the term "instinct" was falling out of favor there for awhile; that was during the era when S-R theory was all the rage. (Morgan and Stellar, as it happens, was the main text I had in my physiological psychology course at Northwestern in '62 or '63.) I also think it's correct to say that "instinct" explains nothing and that there was a time when the term was used as a catch-all in lieu of explanation. However, the term made a resurgence in a changed form in the work of the ethologists (such as Tinbergen, Lorenz and subsequent), and it was elaborated and complexified with the idea of "open instincts" -- genetically-based behavior patterns which require learning to release and complete. I think it is a useful term as a descriptive category for complexly organized behavioral patterns which innately unfold (given proper circumstances and triggers).

Ellen

Michael Sutcliffe said...

I think it is a useful term as a descriptive category for complexly organized behavioral patterns which innately unfold (given proper circumstances and triggers).

This is exactly what I'm referring too when I'm referring to instinct in animals.

I thank you for looking up this quote and I apologise for not responding and following on with the argument - I just haven't frequented this site on a regular basis due to work and other commitments.

However, I may not be able to post every day, but I'm going to hang around and respond to everything I've posted from now until a time to be determined.

That Which Makes You Afraid said...

Can you honestly be so stupid? Instead of trying to understand Objectivism, you post a blog determined to undermine it only through ignorance? It's not wonder you think this is a contradiction, because in reality there is no such thing. Check your premises, it is only your (limited in your case) perception that causes you to believe that there is a contradiction.
For one, the first quote is taken out of context, and for two these quotes are talking about two completely different subjects you incompetent ass. You are trying to make an argument directed at Objectivism, but you are using the simple values of Hedonism to do it?
Pleasure is not the equivalent of good, that is not a value of Objectivism. Your arguments show how little you understand about Objectivism or anything else for that matter, so you should maybe look up some Abraham Lincoln quotes like, oh I don't know, maybe "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."


[Maybe you should study up on some metaphysics and epistemology, before you try attacking another philosophy you should at least know something about it.]

Daniel Barnes said...

>TWMYA:
For one, the first quote is taken out of context, and for two these quotes are talking about two completely different subjects you incompetent ass.

Hi TWMYA,

Please explain exactly how this quote is "taken out of context". In fact, it's just Rand being typically sloppy and self-contradictory. There are abounding examples, particularly in the ITOE. Are you very familiar with the book?

>[Maybe you should study up on some metaphysics and epistemology, before you try attacking another philosophy you should at least know something about it.]

I am very familiar with Objectivist metaphysics and particularly its epistemology - far more than you, I would wager. FYI, Objectivism's epistemology is by far its weakest point, and the ITOE is almost certainly Rand's worst book, a farrago of freestyle silliness and trivial word-games masquerading as profundities. There's plenty of detailed criticism of it on this site from both a logical and empirical point of view, so take a look around.