Saturday, August 30, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 9

The force of logic Sometimes the most curious doctrines in Objectivism are not those that are explicitly formulated but rather those that are merely hinted at or presupposed by explicit convictions. One such presupposition is the very odd view that neither people nor societies can long hold contradictory beliefs. Consider this passage from Rand’s “For the New Intellectual”:
From her start, America was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.

Rand believed that people cannot long hold beliefs that contradict their fundamental premises. Such contradictions will eventually be resolved in favor of the more “fundamental” belief. So if an individual believes in altruism and capitalism, his belief in altruism will undermine his belief in capitalism because (1) altruism and capitalism contradict each other and (2) altruism is more “fundamental” than capitalism.

Here we find Rand once again misrepresenting human nature. There is no evidence that the majority of human beings have any great concern for whether they hold contradictory beliefs. As human experience repeatedly testifies, most human beings have a weak grasp of logic and are blissfully ignorant of the many contradictions floating about in their brains. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto dedicated a 250,000 word volume to analyzing what he called “non-logical” action, which is to say, action based on contradictory or non-logical notions. “Pareto not only shows that non-logical conduct is predominant,” noted James Burnham; “his crucial point is that the conduct which has a bearing on social and political structure, on what he calls the ‘social equilibrium,’ is above all non-logical. What happens to society, whether it progresses or decays, is free or despotic, happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, is only to the slightest degree influenced by the deliberate, rational purposes held by human beings.” Pareto, therefore, comes to almost the exact opposite conclusion from Rand. Human beings, he notes, are frequently destitute of logic. And he gives hundreds of examples of non-logical actions in his treatise Mind and Society.

But even if Pareto turned out to be wrong on this issue, Rand and her disciples would still not be in the clear; for they would still have to reckon with the evidence of cognitive science, which pretty much settles the issue. Cognitive scientists have conducted a great many experiments examining the degree to which human beings are logical, and they have found that nearly all human beings not only lack any natural facility for logic, but that, in the normal business of life, they make frequent use of illogical inferences to get things done. As Morton Hunt puts it:
[F]ormal logic is not a good description of how our minds usually work. Logic tells us how we should reason when we are trying to reason logically, but it does not tell us how to think about reality as we encounter it most of the time.…

Logic enables us to judge the validity of our own deductive reasoning, but much of the time we need to reason non-deductively — either inductively, or in terms of likelihoods, or of causes and effects, none of which fits within the rules of formal logic. The archetype of everyday realistic reasoning might be something like this: This object (or situation) reminds me a lot of another that I experienced before, so probably I can expect much to be true of this one that was true of that one. Such reasoning is natural and utilitarian — but logically invalid....

If there still remain doubts on this score, simply attend more closely to the beliefs of other human beings. If one observes the human animal, one will find an astonishing mixture of contradictory notions and clashing ideas. I have recently been listening David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, in which one finds a biographical portrait John Augustus Roebling, the engineer who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge. Although Roebling was a man of science and a great engineer, this did not prevent him from wallowing in non-logical and empirically dubious activities. In his youth, he studied philosophy under the exquisitely preposterous Hegel. In later years, he dabbled in spiritualism and hydropathy. Hegel’s arch-enemy, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer advocated quietism and asceticism, but he didn’t practice what he preached. He declared he was incapable of practicing his philosophy, even though he insisted that his philosophy was right. I’ve talked to several Obama supporters in the last few months who don’t seem to agree with many of Obama’s positions. Yet when this is pointed out to them, they are unphazed. They simply don’t care whether a contradiction exists between the policies the favor and the candidate they support.

Examples of this sort could be multiplied many many times. Some people—perhaps even most people—don’t really care too much about either logic or consistency, particularly about matters that are remote to their particular sphere of practical action. Rand and her disciples seem to admit of this non-logical aspect of human belief when they talk of people with “mixed” premises. But they don’t seem to realize that the very fact that people can hold mixed premises contradicts Rand’s conviction that capitalism and altruism cannot exist the same person because the two are contradictory.

Yet this is not the only contradiction involved in insisting that contradictions in the human psyche will tend to be resolved in favor of the more “fundamental” belief. Rand and Peikoff both contend that epistemological ideas are more fundamental than ethical and political ideas. This, however, is a problematic position. What if an individual were to embrace epistemological convictions that deny the importance or “validity” of logic? If an individual doesn’t believe in logic, wouldn’t this mean that there would exist no force or tendency in his mind to resolve contradictions between his ethical and political beliefs? After all, why should such contradictions matter to someone who doesn’t give a fig for logic? Moreover, since Rand did not belief that people had innate tendencies, she can hardly presuppose the existence of an innate tendency to resolve contradictions in favor of the more fundamental view. Since people have free will, they should be able to hold as many contradictory beliefs as they damn please? The Objectivist supposition that contradictory beliefs tend toward a resolution in favor of the more fundamental premise can therefore be dismissed as a mere prejudice, without basis in either logic or fact.

16 comments:

Damien said...

greg,

Another contradictory set of beliefs that at least some objectivists, including Rand herself possessed, was a love of individualism and a desire to perfect mankind.

One of the arguments I have heard monotheists use for there being only one God, is that there cannot be more than one perfect being, since any difference from the perfect being would make any other being imperfect. Thus Rand and Piekoff's desire to perfect mankind and their love of individualism are logically incomparable. Being imperfect is part of being human, and it is part of being an individual.

Michael Prescott said...

I’ve talked to several Obama supporters in the last few months who don’t seem to agree with many of Obama’s supporters.

I think this should read "agree with many of Obama's policies."

I suspect most people don't ordinarily operate by Aristotelian logic, but by something more along the lines of the tetralemma explored by Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. In this four-pronged logical system, the possibilities are: a) X is true, b) X is not true, c) X is both true and not true, d) X is neither true nor not true.

There is ample scope for what Rand would call contradictions in this system, yet it could be argued that these four options are more inclusive (and better representative of reality) than a dichotomous system.

For instance, the proposition "Obama is a socialist" would probably best be described not by "a" or "b," but by either "c" or "d." That is, he may be socialistic in some aspects of his thinking, but not others, so he is c) both a socialist and not a socialist, or, conversely, d) neither a socialist nor a non-socialist.

I have found that the Buddhist approach is often more useful than Aristotle's two-pronged logic. I've also found that people with an either-or mindset are profoundly uncomfortable with the tetralemma and can be become remarkably exercised about it!

Damien said...

Michael Prescott,

But how can something be both true and false at the same time? How can there be no purple unicorns, yet a purple unicorn is standing in front of you? How can there be no God and yet God exists? That's bad logic, if not, nothing is. Rand may have gotten a lot wrong and she may have believed things based on her desires and ignored reality when she didn't like it, but at least she claimed to follow the law of non contradiction, even if in reality she didn't always do so. The law of non contradiction the most important part of logic.

Michael Prescott said...

How can there be no purple unicorns, yet a purple unicorn is standing in front of you?

The tetralemma affords scope for clear-cut cases with its first two alternatives. But unlike dualistic logic, it also affords scope for more ambiguous cases with its second two alternatives.

The main disadvantage of dualistic logic, it seems to me, is that it encourages an either-or view of the world (with ambiguities either ignored or sloughed off as inconsequential borderline cases). The advantage of four-pronged logic, I think, is that it encourages us to see the full spectrum of options, not just the extremes at the two ends of the spectrum.

However, I admit that it is highly counterintuitive in Western culture, and it does take a bit of getting used to.

Damien said...

Michael Prescott,

But that does not answer the question. I don't think that for example that you can be an atheist and believe in God, because by definition an atheist rejects the existence of God. what you are calling Four pronged logic isn't valid. dualistic logic is valid. Rand's tautology, A is A may not be an argument for how one should behave, but can you think of an instance where A is not A?

I will admit that there is a lot of subtlety in the world. Earlier commenting on the nature of pride,
I pointed out that just because something is good or bad in some instances, doesn't mean that it is always good or always bad.

I paraphrased something I remember a native American saying on TV when he was talking about his culture. He pointed out that a fire can warm you, but it can also burn you. He was basically saying that his culture doesn't tend to see thing as always being black and white. I see no contradiction between that attitude and excepting Dualistic logic as you call it.

Dragonfly said...

The "problem" is in fact quite trivial. In the statement "Obama is a socialist" the term "socialist" itself is ambiguous, there is no clear-cut definition that separates a socialist from a non-socialist. Thus if A says "yes, he's a socialist" and B says "no, he isn't a socialist", this only means that A and B are not using the same criteria, there isn't a contradiction and you don't need some special logic to describe this situation.

That people seem to have contradictory beliefs only means that people are seldom consistent in their beliefs and that they use different criteria in different circumstances.

Trevor Britnell said...

"Here we find Rand once again misrepresenting human nature. There is no evidence that the majority of human beings have any great concern for whether they hold contradictory beliefs."

This passage shows evidence of a great flaw in the perception of Rand's philosophy.

Rand herself described Objectivism not as how humans do act but how they can and ought to act. If one were to act or think illogically, then one would be at fault. The experiments of cognitive scientists revealing that most human beings lack logic in their everyday lives is very interesting. Ayn Rand once said that she despises mankind for being so devoid of reason. Apparently she was not wrong in her disgust.

Scientific tests may prove most people lack logic the majority of the time, but this also shows that there are those that utilize logic all or most of the time. Therefore, it is not illogical to expect people to be logical in everything they do.

Henry Scuoteguazza said...

I'm not sure I buy the tetralemma as described by Michael Prescott but I do often see two positions offered as "opposites." When you look at these positions the possibilities are that (1) A is correct and B is incorrect, (2) A is partially correct and B is partially correct, and (3) neither A nor B is correct.

This might be not be a good example but let's take abortion for an instance. Pro-lifers say abortion is always wrong because life is precious regardless of its stage of development. Pro-choice says abortion is a decision strictly for the mother (meaning that abortion can be right). I'd say that abortion in the first trimester is OK because the fetus is incapable of surviving without extreme measures to support it, is not OK in the third trimester because a fetus is close to fully developed and can survive without extraordinary means. (For that reason I'd say partial birth abortion is wrong.) The second trimester is a gray area.

Another example is the nurture-nature debate. From my reading it appears that both play a role in the development of a person.

Michael Prescott said...

I'm not sure I buy the tetralemma as described by Michael Prescott but I do often see two positions offered as "opposites." When you look at these positions the possibilities are that (1) A is correct and B is incorrect, (2) A is partially correct and B is partially correct, and (3) neither A nor B is correct.

Thanks, Henry, for your interesting analysis. We are probably saying almost the same thing. In what you wrote above, there is actually a fourth possibility: that A is incorrect and B is correct. This would give four alternatives, which correspond fairly closely to Nagarjuna's tetralemma.

A useful exercise is to look at a sunset and ask, "Is the color of the sky red or not red?"

gregnyquist said...

trevor britnell: "Scientific tests may prove most people lack logic the majority of the time, but this also shows that there are those that utilize logic all or most of the time. Therefore, it is not illogical to expect people to be logical in everything they do."

In the first place, one of the premises of this argument is empirically dubious. There is no evidence showing that there are people who use logic all or most of the time. Indeed, it is probably impossible to do so. Human beings often have to make quick decisions based on sketchy information; they also must make prognostications about situations of great complexity, involving confusing webs of reciprocal causation. In such cognitive domains, logic (or any other sort of consciously directed, methodological thinking) simply well not do, and more intuitive types of thinking must be resorted to. Where the data is unambiguous and the individual has time to sort out the details, then logic can be very useful, particularly in creating experiments to test scientific theories.

Even if, however, we ignore the faulty premise, the argument presented by Mr. Britnell is still invalid. Merely because some people are logical doesn't necessarily mean that all or most people can be logical. If it turns out that human beings are biologically predisposed against thinking logically—and the evidence of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology strongly support such a view—then it would appear any attempt to make or persuade more people to be "logical" is doomed to failure.

"Ayn Rand once said that she despises mankind for being so devoid of reason. Apparently she was not wrong in her disgust."

This is the troublesome part of the Randian doctrine. The fact that Rand was wrong about the cognitive efficacy of logic in non-scientific domains of experience would not be a big deal if she did not draw this kind of misanthropic conclusion from it.

trevor britnell said...

gregnyquist:

"Cognitive scientists have conducted a great many experiments examining the degree to which human beings are logical, and they have found that nearly all human beings not only lack any natural facility for logic, but that, in the normal business of life, they make frequent use of illogical inferences to get things done."

In response to your rebuttal, the above passage clearly says "nearly all human beings" which infers that some humans did show consistent logic in their thinking. If not the article would read "all human beings."

I agree that for any person to act with exceeding logic in everything one does in impossible because no one is perfect. It can be done most of the time.

"Human beings often have to make quick decisions based on sketchy information; they also must make prognostications about situations of great complexity, involving confusing webs of reciprocal causation."

In making quick decisions with insufficient information, one can still use logic, it just might not be as thorough as it would be with more time to address the situation. In soccer, the players often must make lightning-fast logical decisions like: the goalie is standing a foot to the right of the center of the goal so I have a better chance of scoring if I kick left (as long as no one else in the way). When insufficient knowledge comes into play it does not impair the use of logic only its effectiveness. You can still utilize logic perfectly with imperfect knowledge. In complex situations, one calls upon intuition which can be thought of as a logic shortcut. It is not as methodical, and in this case tedious, as cut-and-dry logic but can arrive at a logical conclusion with a very small margin of error, and in less time, compared to the methodical logic.

As to your argument that some people may be biologically able to be logical and some not, the only people I can see that this could possibly pertain to is the mentally impaired. I find it difficult to believe that the average person lacks the ability to be logical. It could perhaps be harder for some than others much like math or reading can be harder for some, but everyone can still learn how to do these things to some degree. So until scientific tests prove the inability for humans to be logical at all, I am sticking to logic.

I also managed to dig up the original Rand quote that I mentioned and you cited:

"I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, and loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to these possibilities." -- A Candid Camera of Ayn Rand, June, 1936 and quoted by Leonard Peikoff in the introduction to "Anthem"

I believe you can agree with me that "possibilities" includes logical thought.

JayCross said...

Hey Dan/Greg,

Interesting free article just published at the Objective Standard.

The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists."

Maybe you could do a post/critique of it? Would love to know your thoughts.

Neil Parille said...

It must be hard for Objectivists to see that the "New Atheists" are getting so much attention, but Randian atheism so little.

gregnyquist said...

trevor britnell: "I agree that for any person to act with exceeding logic in everything one does in impossible because no one is perfect."

I think this misses the point. People don't fall short of logic because they are imperfect; people fall short of logic because logic is not useful in all domains of experience. I don't think Mr. Britnell appreciates the extent to which individuals reach "probably true" conclusions based on logically invalid inferences. Consider the doctor who examines a patient. He notices a symptom which, on the basis of his experience, suggests disease X. The inference he makes can be schematized as follows:

Disease X is known to produce various symptoms, including A, B, and C.
This patient has symptoms A, B, and C.
Therefore, (I suspect) this patient has disease X.

Now this is an invalid inference (it commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle). In the real world, where we must reckon in terms of likelihoods and probabilities, such inferences are useful (though they are not stricly logical). So logic turns out not to be as efficacious as those who buy into the classical view of human rationality believe.

"In making quick decisions with insufficient information, one can still use logic, it just might not be as thorough as it would be with more time to address the situation."

Well then it's not really logic, unless you're using logic merely as a catch-all term for "efficacious decision-making." But such "logic" has very little to do with the logic of Aristotle and classical philosophy. Keep in mind: strictly speaking, a logic inference is one which, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. No exceptions. But in real life we often find ourselves in situations where we can't squeeze the information we have into valid syllogisms. We must use inferences that are technically invalid, like the one the doctor used in the above example. These inferences are useful because they are true in most cases. But they are not true in all cases and are therefore not logical.

"I find it difficult to believe that the average person lacks the ability to be logical."

It's not that the average person lacks the ability; it's that most people, average or not, have difficulty to thinking with strict logic. They constantly revert to using invalid inferences and they have little appreciation for the fact that they are doing so. Keeping within the straight and narrow of logical thinking is kind of like writing with one's off hand. With enough training, it can be done, but one really has to fight against one's natural propensities to succeed at it. And there's a very good reason for this. Historically, there exists no survival or reproductive advantage to thinking in terms of strict logic, because logic of this sort is not efficacious through all the most critical domains of experience.

Once we appreciate the limitations, in terms of cognitve efficacy, of logic within certain domains of experience (i.e., outside of mathematics, geometry and science), there is no reason to loathe people who are not strictly logical. That would be committing the error of judging people on the basis of a false ideal.

Trevor said...

gregnyquist:

"I think this misses the point. People don't fall short of logic because they are imperfect; people fall short of logic because logic is not useful in all domains of experience."

I did not use this as a reason for why people fall short of logic but to clarify that I do not expect logic all the time but merely most of it. You say that a person must be trained to use logic, and I agree. It can be expected for the average person to think with logic consistently; so why shouldn't they? For instance, in the future, astronauts land on a planet populated with intelligent life. However, the beings we come in contact with have been cannibals since they first evolved into an intelligent species. We believe cannibalism is immoral and disgusting. Should we condone their behavior simply because evolution supplied them with no advantages to not eating their own species? No we should not. The best option would be to teach them to have respect for all intelligent beings and to only kill if their right to life is infringed upon.

Gregnyquist's example with the doctor is incorrect because, like I said before, insufficient knowledge does not impair the use of logic only its effectiveness. The doctor's diagnoses is logical with the information he was given. Perhaps with additional tests his decision might change, but it doesn't mean his prior logic was wrong at the time of use. Though it would be if he came to the same conclusion after the additional tests. This idea can be seen in a subject where logic is never left out: math. A teacher gives her students a set of numbers {2,5,6,8,16} and tell them to find the sum of the numbers. The students find the sum to be 37. Then the teacher realizes she accidentally left out the number 9. The new sum is 46. If we go with your argument, then the students were all illogical even with faulty information. On the contrary, they were perfectly logical with the information presented with, but they wouldn't be if they arrived at 37 again with the proper information.

The same idea can be applied to making quick decisions. You are not given time to gather all the information, so you must logically use what you have. "Likelihoods and probabilities" can be used logically. If 9 out of 10 people who smoked die before the age of 60, then it is logical to think that if you smoke you will die before 60.

I, and I believe Ayn Rand, do not despise humanity for not using logic but for failing to accept the fact that they do not use it when presented with the facts. On the day the world realizes it is illogical and goes on to rectify itself, the world will be on its way to being a moral and war-free place.



I would also like to take a chance to clear up something in a previous post that may have created an unwanted conclusion. After reading "The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists" by Alan Germani in TOS, I must differentiate between my idea of intuition and the "New Atheist's." Their "moral intuition" is based on what one "feels" is right. Intuition, as I see it, is not based on what one feels but what has induced with logic. This is akin to mathematical induction where the outcome is supported by the premises but need not be gone through step-by-step like methodical logic. This can be seen with a line of dominoes. If one knows that the first domino falls over and knocks the second one over, then they know that this chain will continue throughout the line of dominoes until the last one falls over. They need not watch every domino fall to know that the last one will fall.

capmconnundrum said...

"But how can something be both true and false at the same time? How can there be no purple unicorns, yet a purple unicorn is standing in front of you?"

Let's say Bob claims: "There is no such thing as Purple Unicorn!"

Ray then reaches behind his back, and pulls out a pasteboard box with a cellophane window. The box is labelled 'purple unicorn' and there is a plastic toy horse, purple with one horn on its forehead.

Bob says " That's not what I meant" and ray retorts: "Yet here it is, in my hand Purple Unicorn"

Because of the ambiguities involving what constitutes a purple unicorn, Bob's original statement "There is no such thing as Purple Unicorn!" can't really be said to be true or false, it is both true and not true, or both false and not false.