Saturday, July 31, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 2

Basic presuppositions of realism. Realism is the view that physical objects exist independently of being perceived (that is to say, physical objects exist whether they are perceived or not). What is presupposed in such a view?

  1. That physical objects exist.
  2. That there exists something that perceives these physical objects.
  3. That the independence of physical objects does not imply complete separation from the perceiver, that there exists some kind of connection between the object and the perceiver of the object.

From these three presupposition we can flesh out the realist position. Realism believes in a physical existence and a sentient perceiver, in other words, matter and consciousness. The belief that the universe is made up primarily of matter and consciousness is known as psychophysical dualism. Most Objectivists reject this dualism, identifying it with the mind-body dichotomy of Plato. Only Harry Binswanger has suggested that Objectivism is consistent with psychophysical dualism:

What's called dualism is the bogey of philosophy. Since Descartes is wrong in regard to the primacy of consciousness, people smear him that anything he ever said is wrong. And one thing that he said was there's a mind and a body. Now that's right….

Dualism is a dangerous term because of its being used for a strawman. But if you mean: Do we believe there are really two existents? Yes! The mind exists and the brain exists—and neither is the other. As I said, shape exists and color exists—and neither is the other. There are many cases of two attributes of the same entity, neither of which can be reduced to the other…. So, yes, I'm a dualist. Or as Leonard [Peikoff] says in OPAR, because the term dualism is not one we have to fight to save and it's so associated with Descartes, the proper word for it is: Objectivism, not dualism. We have our own distinct view here. But if you had to put it in the historical classification, yeah, we're not monists. We believe that both consciousness and matter exist and neither is reducible to the other.

Depiste this rather tepid acknowledgement of dualism, some Objectivists were shocked by Binswanger’s allegiance with so “dangerous” a term. Yet realism implies psychophysical dualism, so that if you are a logically consistent realist, you must, ipso facto, be a psychophysical dualist.

Realism also believes that consciousness is capable of perceiving matter. This is a more difficult proposition to elucidate, particularly for foundationalists like Rand, who wish to provide a veneer of logic for their chief assertions. In the main, there are two groups of theories: (1) direct realism, which posits that we perceive physical objects without mediation, so that physical objects exist precisely as we see them; (2) indirect realism, which posits that we perceive all objects through the medium of ideas, that, in effect, there exists a dualism between physical objects and how they are represented in consciousness. Most theories of realism, including Rand’s, are convoluted attempts to combine direct and indirect realism. They are all involved in what the realist philosopher Arthur Lovejoy called “the revolt against dualism.” None of these confused realists are comfortable admitting that reality is perceived through the medium of ideas, because this insight inevitably stresses the provisional, conjectural nature of knowledge.

So to sum up: the hypothesis of realism, when fleshed out, involves belief in two dualisms:

  1. Psychophysical dualism (i.e., the belief that matter and consciousness exist).
  2. Epistemological dualism (i.e., the belief that mind perceives material objects through the veil of ideas—i.e., representationalism).

Is there any reasons for believing that realism, along with these two dualisms, is true? I will turn to this subject in the next post.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Epic Fail - Update

The awesome $5m movie of Rand's epic Atlas Shrugged has wrapped. Below, fitness equipment entrepreneur and first time movie producer John Aglialaro provides us with an alleged "teaser":

Atlas Shrugged teaser from The Atlas Society on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dust Up At Ground Zero

I haven't been paying much attention to the latest burgeoning Objecto-schism regarding the proposed mosque near - well, four blocks away from - Ground Zero in New York. Leonard Peikoff wants it stopped, despite the legitimacy, in Objectivism, of the owners property rights to build whatever they want on the land they own. This has created some consternation even in Orthodox Objectivist circles, where Peikoff's every word is usually slavishly adhered to. BenSix in comments helpfully supplies this article on the palaver. The upshot is that the application of Randian property rights turns out in practice to be as unclear to Randians as it is to anyone else. The subtext is quite possibly Palace politics in Orthodox Objectivism, as the weathervanes swirl in the vacuum increasingly surrounding the frail Peikoff.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 1

Preliminaries. What on earth is all this nonsense that goes under the name “metaphysics”? Rand defined metaphysics as “the study of existence as such or, in Aristotle’s words, of ‘being qua being.’” Well, that sure narrows it down! More insightful is George Santayana’s take on the subject:

Metaphysics, in the proper sense of the word, is dialectical physics, or an attempt to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. It arises by a confusion of those Realms of Being which it is my special care to distinguish. It is neither physical speculation nor pure logic nor honest literature, but (as in the treatise of Aristotle first called by that name) a hybrid of the three, materialising ideal entities, turning harmonies into forces, and dissolving natural things into terms of discourse. Speculations about the natural world, such as those of the Ionian philosophers, are not metaphysics, but simply cosmology or natural philosophy. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, vii]

I have tended to follow Santayana’s usage of the word, regarding metaphysics as, in the main, empirically irresponsible speculation. Even when used to defend postulates that are basically sound, metaphysics remains, in the words of F. H. Bradley, “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.”

There is, however, one other usage of the word that should be noted. Karl Popper applied the word metaphysics to any claims or conjectures that are not empirically testable. Popper’s usage, while entirely blameless, is not one I normally honor.

Now following Santayana’s usage, I inevitably open myself up to complaints, often introduced in an angry tone, that, I too, have a metaphysics; that indeed, “having a metaphysics” is inevitable, since everyone has a “basic view of the world,” that is to say, a “metaphysics.” However, following Santayana, I don’t choose to call my so-called “basic view” of the universe metaphysical. It is merely, as Santayana calls it, cosmology or natural philosophy. And I entirely reject any attempt to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. Such devices, I hold, cannot lead to truth, but only encourage rationalization and empty speculation.

What, then, is my “basic view of the universe”? In the broad essentials, it is not so different from Rand’s. It involves the fundamental assumptions involved in living. I presuppose, for instance, the existence of time, including a past that is gone and a future that is to come; the existence of a physical universe made up of gross objects in space; and the existence of consciousness, which perceives existence through the veil of ideas. Unlike Rand, I don’t believe these basic presuppositions can be defended or validated via axioms or logical argumentation. All these fundamental presuppositions may conceivably be illusory—that is to say, the arguments against them cannot be decisively refuted. They are presuppositions which nature has bred in us (probably via evolution) and which have proved their worth, not by logic, but through centuries of practice. They neither require nor are amenable to logical justification.

Rand takes a very different approach. She is an extreme foundationalist who believes that man’s fundamental presuppositions requires explicit logical justification; that in the absence of this justification, people will lose their ability to think for themselves and will become incapable of supporting a free society. Is there any evidence to support this contention? None that is convincing. The belief that all human contentions and presuppositions require explicit philosophical justification constitutes a false demand. Few people understand, let alone care, about such arcana. Rand’s foundationalism only serves to encourage rationalization, verbalism, essentialism, and other modes of empty speculation, and is often symptomatic of a dogmatic turn of mind that has trouble accepting the provisional and conjectural nature of knowledge. Rather than being an ally of realism, foundationalism tends to undermine it, as it forces the philosopher to adopt premises that are at odds with realism.

But more on this anon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Defending the Impossible

Over at, there's a bit of a philosophical duel going on between myself and Rand apologist Paul Beaird. While it hardly reaches the exalted rank of Lincoln-Douglass or Wilberforce-Huxley, it will give Rand watchers a chance to witness an intelligent advocate of Rand trying to defend three impossible positions, namely: (1) that Rand logically derived an ought from an is, a value from a fact; (2) that there exists no equivocation between "man's life" and "man's survival qua man"; and (3) that Hume denied the possibility of any connection between fact and value. Since these positions are indefensible, Mr. Beaird spends most of his time try to divert attention through various debating tricks, particular the old the best defense is a good offense trick. Instead of defending Rand, he attacks what he imagines are my failings, with predictable results.

Empirical responsibility is not exactly one of Mr. Beaird's virtues. He twice insists that "Rand's use of observable facts and the relationships between them [which facts and relationships are those? can he state any?] to demonstrate the natural foundation of the concept 'value' is so well-known by now that, for you to still insist Hume had not been refuted reveals an uncomprehending mind..." Of course, no evidence is brought forth to back this extraordinary claim. Rand critic Michael Huemer expresses a very different point of view:

Objectivists seem to find "The Objectivist Ethics" completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views. This is not true of most of her other views: one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless thinks Rand’s political views are reasonable, or her epistemological views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory of “The Objectivist Ethics” is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas. (Here is a nicer way to say that: all of Rand’s other major theories are more plausible and better defended than that one.)

Now who is right? Is Rand's argument in "The Objectivist Ethics" so "well known by now" that only an "uncomprehending mind" would fail to understand that Rand had "refuted" Hume? Or is the argument only accepted by Objectivists, who are committed to accepting everything by Rand, in defiance of fact and logic? Huemer's contention is by far the more plausible. I can't think of a single non-Objectivist who accepts Rand's argument. And most people have never heard of it at all, and would not be able to make heads or tails of it if it were explained to them.

In my exchange with Mr. Beaird, I have made repeated calls for Beaird or any other Objectivist to back their talk and produce this marvelous refutation of Hume. Of course, no such proof will ever be produced. Ironically, however, the aforementioned Michael Huemer has attempted to state the Objectivist argument in logical form. I have linked to it before, but its worth the occasional perusal. Huemer finds all of Rand's premises to be dubious for one reason or another. Nor is Huemer able to complete the chain of reasoning all the way to Rand's "man qua man." That, of course, is impossible, since it involves a palpable equivocation ("'man qua man' and 'rational' [are] fudge words" is Huemer's verdict).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 58

Ayn Rand contra Libertarianism 3. In my last two posts, I have detailed the inadequacy of Rand’s arguments against Libertarianism. Rand’s arguments are so bad that it raises questions as to her real motives in the whole business. If she had a clear, rational case against Libertarianism, wouldn’t she have presented such a case and left it at that? But she does no such thing. Instead, her arguments appear drenched in malice and petty resentment. Libertarians, she inveighs, are a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who stole all their ideas from Objectivism and yet have the gall to consort with anarchists and (horror of horrors!) religious conservatives. Now if Libertarianism really is as bad as Rand would have us believe, why did Rand have to resort to name calling and illogical guilt-by-association arguments? I have several conjectures on this score, as listed below.

Conjecture 1: Logical deduction from Rand’s basic premises. Rand’s admirers would have us believe that her views of Libertarianism are merely deductions from the principles of Objectivism. From Rand’s views of history and psychology, she concluded that bad arguments do more harm than outright opposition. This being the case, Libertarians really are “worse” than Marxists and communists, because their bad arguments cause more harm to freedom and capitalism than outright opposition.

While it may be true that Rand’s hostility toward Libertarians was, in part at least, motivated by this factor, it still doesn’t explain why Rand made so many bad arguments against Libertarians. Indeed, it seems altogether anomalous. If bad arguments are worse than outright opposition, then Rand, if she were consistent, would not compound the fault by issuing bad arguments against Libertarianism. If she opposed Libertarianism because its apologists refused to provide good arguments for capitalism and freedom, she hardly did her own cause any favors by issuing even worse arguments against Libertarianism.

Conjecture 2: Vanity motive. Rand had a very high opinion of her ability to persuade people. She regarded her conviction that capitalism requires a “moral base” (i.e., that capitalism should be defended with moral arguments) as a special insight which would allow her political ideals to triumph. However, Rand struggled to find other prominent supporters of capitalism and freedom who shared this view. When Rand’s essay “Textbook of Americanism” was passed around among the donors and staff members of FEE, the first libertarian think tank, few were impressed with Rand’s arguments. One reader complained of Rand’s “illogical jargon,” while another complained that the “line of logic” which Rand used in the essay was “very weak.” [Burns, Goddess of the Market, 119] In short, even those who sympathized with Rand’s political ideals found her arguments unpersuasive. Imagine how galling that must have been to Rand that even people who shared her political convictions found her arguments unconvincing!

Perhaps, then, it was merely disappointed vanity that set Rand against libertarians. Since they refused to bow down and let her be their intellectual leader, following and agreeing with her every pronouncement, she concluded they had to be her worst enemies.

Conjecture 2: Jealousy. Perhaps Rand simply resented that some defenders of freedom and capitalism had more success or were taken more seriously than she was. In the forties, the most successful book defending freedom was Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Rand hostility toward Hayek was immediate and vitriolic. She regarded Hayek as “pure poison” and “an example of our most pernicious enemy.” “The man is an ass,” she wrote, “[The Road to Serfdom] had no base, no moral base. This is why my book is needed.” [ibid, 104-105] This final boast suggests that Rand regarded Hayek as a rival, and that jealousy may have played a role in her overwrought denunciations of his book.

Perhaps Rand’s hatred of Libertarians was fueled, at least in part, by jealously of other intellectuals such as Rothbard, Hospers, and Nozick. Perhaps this explains her bitter contention that Libertarians were merely cheap publicity seekers. Maybe she resented that they were getting more attention than she was, or less negative attention, as the case might be.

Or perhaps Rand merely resented that Libertarians were be given credit for ideas that Rand thought she herself was responsible for. Maybe she was jealous that she wasn’t being given all or most of the credit for these ideas.

Conjecture 4: Resentment against excommunicated Objectivists. Many Libertarians were former Objectivists; a few were even close disciples of Rand. Perhaps Rand resented that Libertarian these former Objectivist apostates a safe haven.

Now which, if any, of these conjectures is true (or at least true in parts) I will leave to the reader to decide. Apologists for Rand might insist that conjectures two through four must be wrong, because Rand was incapable of vanity, jealousy, and resentment. This, however, is a rather implausible assertion difficult to find creditable. Vanity, jealousy, and resentment are emotions deep within the warp and woof of human nature. Denying these emotions on the ground that this human nature doesn't exist only encourages thinkers like Rand to ignore and repress what they really do feel, rather than confronting these troublesome emotions and taking effective psychological counter-measures against them. It is precisely those who deny human nature that are most vulnerable to its less pleasant manifestations. Rand’s claim that she didn’t have these disagreeable emotions because, after all, she was a woman of self-made soul, is no more creditable than someone denying that his or her organism produces disagreeable body odors. Ironically, it’s precisely the individual who makes such a claim who winds up stinking. The rest of us, recognizing that are bodies, if left to their own devices, will inevitably produce unpleasant odors, resort to such effective counter-measures as bathing and deodorant.

Note: this will be the last post in the current "Objectivism and Politics" series. Although there exists a great deal more territory that could be covered relating to politics, I think we have touched most of the major issues and can proceed to other areas of Rand's philosophy.

Blogrolling In Our Time

Taking a brief break from all things Randian, a shameless plug for a site my good friend Rafe Champion contributes to, A treasure trove of all things Popperian run by the estimable Matt Dioguardi. Also Rafe's personal site, The Rathouse, has a more arts and literature bent and is highly recommended.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 57

Ayn Rand contra Libertarianism 2. In my last post I summed up Rand’s allegations against Libertarianism as follows:

Libertarians are bad and evil because:

  1. Libertarians are a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people.”
  2. Libertarians are “plagiarists” who stole Rand’s ideas without giving credit.
  3. Libertarians are anarchists.
  4. Libertarians are anti-intellectual collectivists, worse than Marxists.
  5. Libertarians are hippies and scum and intellectual cranks.
  6. Libertarians are worse than the New Left, because they want to combine anarchism with capitalism.
  7. Libertarians are led by men of various persuasions, including “religious conservatives and anarchists.”
  8. Libertarianism is based, in part, on “borrowed ideas.”
  9. Libertarians denounce Rand when it fits their purpose.
  10. Libertarians would like to have an amoral politics.
  11. Libertarianism is a cheap attempt at publicity.

I examined the first five in the previous post; now let’s tackle the final six.

6. Libertarians are worse than the New Left, because they want to combine anarchism with capitalism. As with many of her allegations against Libertarianism, this one is guilty of painting a brush a mile wide. Yes, some Libertarians want to combine libertarianism with anarchism, but not all do.

Does wishing to combine capitalism with anarchism make Libertarians worse than the New Left? Why? Because, according to Rand, it is better to be consistent in a bad cause than inconsistent in a good one. This has it's basis in one of Rand's oddest prejudices—namely, that human beings are the mere pawns of the logical deductions of their most basic premises. Why this is so, Rand never explained. It is a tacit assumption, rarely recognized, let alone questioned.

To impotent ideologues whose ideas are incapable of finding realization in the world of fact, there exists no empirical consequences to serve as a check to their wildest, fact impoverished speculations. Without empirical checks, one's practical sense of things gradually dissolves away. The imagination, guided by wishful thinking, becomes king.

To practical individuals rooted in the world of fact, what is important is the empirical fruits or consequences of a specific ideology. The fact that one ideology is more consistent with its so-called "basic" premises is of little importance. What is important is the actual consequences, as read from the book of fact, of the ideology in question. On this standard, Libertarianism can hardly be considered as "worse than the New Left," even from an Objectivist viewpoint. The bad effects of Libertarianism are limited by the very fact that, beyond providing rationalizations for free trade and deregulation, the effects of Libertarianism have been negligible. The New Left, on the other hand, has been enormously influential in schools, universities, city and state government, and, since President Obama's election, in Federal government. Policies influenced by New Left ideals have led to a serious demoralization of American society that grossly outweighs whatever mischief has resulted from the Libertarian rationalizations put forth on behalf of free trade and deregulation. So the notion that Libertarians are "worse" than the New Left is not terribly plausible from the empirical point of view.

7. Libertarians are led by men of various persuasions, including “religious conservatives and anarchists.” This is a strange and even troubling allegation for Rand to make, particularly in light of all the virtuous noise she makes on behalf of individualism. Rand is upset that Libertarians (who, after all, are individualists of one stripe or another), are not, as she apparently wants them to be, merely a horde of indistinguishable ideologues, alike in all "essential" respects. There exists a central paradox at the core of Objectivism. On the one hand, Objectivism is supposed to be a philosophy of extreme, uncompromising individualism; yet on the other, it preaches an equally extreme, uncompromising form of “rational” morality, which demands a moral uniformity far more rigid and exacting than found in the worst sort of secular or theocratic totalitarian states. Even worse, Rand extended her totalitarian “rationality” to the psychological and aesthetic spheres. According to the example set by Rand, Objectivists not only had to accept all the same moral injunctions, but they also had to experience the same emotional and aesthetic reactions. And all this was done under the pretense of individualism and excused because it was voluntary!

Would Rand really have felt better about Libertarianism if it were made up of men of a single persuasion? Hardly likely. She was merely searching for any pretext at all that she could give herself for hating Libertarianism, and this was merely one that she ran across. Yet it does reveal something about her psychology that she would object to an ideological movement being made up of individuals of “various persuasions.”

8. Libertarianism is based, in part, on “borrowed ideas.” What movement isn’t based “in part,” on “borrowed ideas”? Even more troubling here, however, is the whole notion of “borrowed ideas”—as if ideas are like private property and can only be “loaned out” to those who don’t “own” the ideas. There are a very few narrowly technical or aesthetic “ideas” that may be patented or copyrighted—e.g., a poem, a software program, an industrial formula. Beyond that, no ideas can be owned or copyrighted. Philosophical and political ideas are not “owned” by their originators (and if they were, they would long ago have fallen out of copyright, since most of our philosophical and political notions were originated long ago). Once a philosopher releases an idea to the world, others may take it up and use it as they see fit. There is no question of borrowing or stealing or plagiarism or any of that kind of nonsense.

9. Libertarians denounce Rand when it fits their purpose. And why shouldn’t they denounce Rand? After all, who start the denunciations, Rand or the Libertarians? Rand despised the Libertarians right from the beginning, so there’s no point at being indignant because some libertarians despised her back. It’s little more than reciprocity.

Even more troubling is Rand's narcissistic assumption under which it is entirely appropriate for her to denounce anyone she likes yet not appropriate for anyone to denounce her in return. Rand allows herself to ignore various rules of fair play and decency, while expecting everyone to abide by these rules in their conduct toward her. Heads Rand wins, tails everyone else loses. Anyone have a problem with this? Or is this what it means to follow one's “rational” self-interest?

10. Libertarians would like to have an amoral politics. This is a rather confusing allegation. What Rand is really saying is: Libertarians do not base their political convictions, or argue on behalf of those convictions, on the basis of my morality. Rand had convinced herself that capitalism, freedom, and individualism could only be nurtured and defended on the basis of a moral system. Yet Rand’s own belief on this issue is based merely on her own say-so. Nearly everything we know from history, sociology, experimental psychology, and cognitive science testifies against it. A moral base, in practical terms, is merely those rationalizations that people put forth to spread a veneer of logic over whatever political ideology suits their economic interests and their sentimental proclivities. Since just about any rationalization will do, the specific rationalization is of little moment. Whether one defends a specific political idea on the basis of “natural” law, “right reason,” “A is A,” “divine” right,” or the thunderbolts of Zeus, it is all the same and hence makes hardly one jot of difference. To charge Libertarians with wanting an “amoral politics” is merely another way of saying Libertarians don’t care which rationalizations you put forth to defend the specific political order that Libertarians fancy. Why should a group bicker or divide over obscure doctrinal matters, when all their members ultimately want the same thing?

11. Libertarianism is a cheap attempt at publicity. And why is this a bad thing? Libertarians wish to spread ideas about liberty. How are they to do so without publicity? Or is the crux of Rand’s complaint that the publicity is “cheap”? But isn’t it rather snobbish to make such a complaint? After all, Libertarians are a mere fringe political faction, without much access to the corporate cash of the two big players in the political scene, the Republicans and the Democrats? So why shouldn’t they try get their publicity as inexpensively as possible?

As can easily be appreciated from the last two posts, Rand’s criticism of Libertarianism is grossly unfair, illogical, unmeasured and confused—mere ranting and raving with hardly a scintilla of dispassionate rational analysis over the whole course of it. How could someone as intelligent as Rand—someone, moreover, who prided herself on “reason” and not allowing one's emotions to infect one's cognition—sink so low? I shall address this question in my next post.