Sunday, August 22, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 5

Memory and the Objectivist Axioms. Rand defined in axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.” The big three axioms in Objectivism are those of existence, consciousness, and identity. These, we would assume, are at the “base of knowledge, “irreducible primaries,” as Rand put it. Yet, irreducible and primary as they may be, they do rest on something else which Rand somehow fails to identify: namely, memory. All claims of knowledge rest on the trustworthiness of memory. Any claim of knowledge, "axiomatic" or otherwise, would be impossible were memory always false or an illusory faculty. Why is this so? It’s really quite simple. Any sort of analysis, including the analysis that yields the Objectivist axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity, presupposes the reliability of memory. All analysis involves the survey of particular datum (ideas or concepts) which require repetition. Consider, for example, a very simple syllogism:

Every man is mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.




This syllogism involves the repetition of man, mortal, Socrates, and is. In order for this syllogism to be valid, we must be correct in identifying the first instance of each of these terms with the second instance, and this involves an act of memory. As Santayana explained:

Thus any survey which is analytic, so that it gives foothold for demonstration, or any definition following upon such analysis, presupposes the repetition of the same essences [i.e., concepts, ideas, etc.] in different contexts. This presupposition cannot be justified by the [datum] occupying the mind at any one time. No more can the assurance that a term remains the same in two successive instances and in two different contexts, nor that what is asserted by a predicate is asserted of the very subject which before had been intuited without that predicate. Explication is a process, a deduction is an event ; and although the force of logical analysis or synthesis does not depend on assuming that fact, but rather on ignoring it, this fact may be deduced from faith in the validity of demonstration, which would lapse if this fact were denied. The validity of demonstration is accordingly a matter of faith only, depending on the assumption of matters of fact incapable of demonstration. I must believe that I noted the terms of the argument separately and successively if I am to assert anything in identifying them or pronouncing them equivalent, or if the conclusion in which they appear now is to be relevant in any way to the premises in which they appeared originally. Thus any survey which is analytic, so that it gives foothold for demonstration, or any definition following upon such analysis, presupposes the repetition of the same essences in different contexts. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, 118]


Since Rand’s axioms cannot be identified without assuming memory, it would seem that memory would have to be included at the base of knowledge. So why didn’t Rand include it? Obviously, this is a major oversight on Rand’s part.

If Rand had not failed to include memory as part of her “base of knowledge,” how would she have gone about “validating” it? Most likely, she would have resorted to the same trick as with her other axioms: she would have contended that any attempt to deny memory must first assume it. However, not only is this line of reasoning open to the objections I raised to it in the previous post, it has about it a sophistical flavor which would be far more transparent were it not used to defend views which all sane people accept. People tend to accept any argument, no matter how suspect, when it is used to defend core beliefs. To argue that a principle is “self-evident” and “axiomatic” because it cannot be “denied” without first assuming it involves presuppositions that can easily be doubted and challenged. It hardly forms a criterion of “self-evidence,” and it is mere presumption to contend that it does. For if it did, why didn’t Rand resort to it more often? She could have made use of it, for instance, in “validating” concepts: for isn’t it true that concepts can only be denied by first making use of them? Yet Rand did not make use of this mode of argumentation in validating her concepts, instead opting for an argument that featured even greater opacity. Why was this? Perhaps because even she did not have complete trust in it.

The real error behind all this sterile rationalization upon which Rand attempted to build her metaphysics is the notion that matters of fact can be determined by logical, rhetorical, or moral constructions. Knowledge does not grow from such otiose web spinning. Knowledge arises to fill pressing animal needs, and grows and develops under the stress of the practical demands of everyday life and from scientific experimentation. Knowledge neither requires, nor can be justified, in logic or “self-evidence.” Foundationalism is as unnecessary as it is false and empty. Knowledge can only be justified (provisionally) either in daily practice or (better yet) through rigorous empirical (i.e., scientific) tests.

22 comments:

Xtra Laj said...

Foundationalism is as unnecessary as it is false and empty.

Amen!

Knowledge can only be justified (provisionally) either in daily practice or (better yet) through rigorous empirical (i.e., scientific) tests.

My brother (an Objectivist) has been trying to write a book that shows the correct epistemological approach to solving problems. I've given up on talking him out of it. He is so wedded to the Objectivist (and militant atheist) practice of making mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains (thanks, Steve) that he continually tries to trace the sources of the errors in modern economics to Hume and Kant. How to *think* isn't a big deal in science these days - it's more who has the best predictive theory for some empirical phenomenon. Justification is mostly a matter of scientific prediction or mathematical proof. Most other things are ideological.

Matt Warren said...

This is great. I almost half-understood this one. Admittedly, I've always had a problem with the deep philosophical stuff (in spite of my interest).

The irreducible concept thing was one of those aspects of Objectivism that ended up pushing me. Thanks for sort of clearing it a bit more.

While we're on the subject of irreducible concepts (and that A is A = "Rand is always right" nonsense), I am curious if you have previously posted about her ideas that 'compromise = evil'. That, along with her unwillingness to ever admit error is the main reason that I loathe her. Oh, and her infantile 'blank slate' stuff. I don't think she ever read a biology textbook.

I'd like to post some of my own feelings and those ideas are the most lay-friendly (imho).

I don't have the chops to debate the philosophical stuff. I kindly defer to you.

But admission of the limitations of knowledge? Knowing that life is about being wrong and correcting ones thoughts? That's right up my alley. :)

Keep it coming. Whether or not I understand exactly what you write, I am continually learning more. I deeply appreciate these remedial lessons.

明RoseH_Huls中 said...

心平氣和~祝你也快樂~~..................................................

Anonymous said...

One comment I wanted to put in the last entry, om metaphysics, but did not know how to phrase it was...about axioms. Didn't L. Ron hubbard say the same thing about his axioms in Dianetics? That they were self-evident too?

- Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Just back from the Skeptics Dictionary - this is from their entry on Scientology/Dianetics, which deals with Hubbards claim on "definite axioms" and why we should disregard a priori notion re his science of the mind. I don't know if the same could be said of Rands.
Scientology and Objectivism ain't the same thing but at times they come close! The in-fighting is terrible, woe betide those that are accused of 'squirelling the tech', which in scientology means perverting the teachings of the founder. Same in Objectivism...they hate those that do that more than they hate altruists.

- Steven Johnston

"There are broad hints that this so-called science of the mind isn't a science at all in the claim that dianetics is built on "definite axioms" and in his a priori notion that a science of mind must find a single source of mental and psychosomatic ills. Sciences aren't built on axioms and they don't claim a priori knowledge of the number of causal mechanisms which must exist for any phenomena. Of course, science presupposes a regular order to nature and assumes there are underlying principles according to which natural phenomena work. It assumes that these principles or laws are relatively constant. But it does not assume that it can know a priori either what these principles are or what the actual order of any set of empirical phenomena is. A real science is built on tentative proposals to account for observed phenomena. Scientific knowledge of causes, including how many kinds there are, is a matter of discovery not stipulation. Also, scientists generally respect logic and would have difficulty saying with a straight face that this new science must show that there is a single source of all insanities except for those insanities that are caused by other sources."

Matt said...

Thank you, that post is very insightful.
I happen to be reading hume at the moment and he's covering matters of fact and knowledge.

Would you recommend something that covers what you have said by a good philosopher?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful blog, Greg and Daniel! It's a great resource.

I wonder if Ayn Rand contra anthropology should be explored at some point. Anthropology abundantly shows, from cultures all over the world, that human nature utterly fails to conform to Rand's preconceptions.

- Chris

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Chris

That's very kind...;-)

Human nature is, I suppose, pretty much anthropology. But Rand's attitude to actually-existing humans, as opposed to the fantasy creations of her novels, is actually rather fraught. Greg's basic premise is that her entire philosophy is built around her girlish fantasy of an ideal man. This theory explains quite a lot.

regards
Daniel

gregnyquist said...

"Would you recommend something that covers what you have said by a good philosopher?"

I have relied quite heavily in these posts on the Spanish born American philosopher George Santayana, particular his book Skepticism and Animal Faith. It's an attack on foundationalism from a critical realist point of view. It's an excellent work, but some people find it overly literary and hard to follow.

Karl Popper has a similar point of view, although he is more orientated in the philosophy of science. He doesn't spend much time directly attacking foundationalism, but his attack on induction fits right into the anti-foundationalist mindset. He's also a wonderfully clear writer and is more accessible than the overly-subtle Santayana.

Generally speaking, I believe Nietzsche was (mostly) right when he suggested that the only honest philosophers are skeptics, and that most of the rest don't really know what it means be honest. By "skeptics," Nietzsche didn't mean those who denied knowledge, but only those that denied certainty. In other words, philosophers such as Hume, Peirce, Nietzsche, Santayana, Popper, etc. What sets these philosophers off from others is that they're not attempting to peddle some agenda. They sincerely seek truth, and if the fail in their endeavor, it's due to human error and not to axe-grinding. Their philosophies are not some ingeniously built rationalization; and so even when they make mistakes, they remain instructive.

K. R. said...

"Anthropology abundantly shows, from cultures all over the world, that human nature utterly fails to conform to Rand's preconceptions."

I think that was the point...acting the 'proper' way was a choice that she claimed had not been made in full correctly up until her.

"Oh, and her infantile 'blank slate' stuff. I don't think she ever read a biology textbook."

That "infantile" stuff wasn't hers either. It was around even before Locke's tabula rasa. And that tabula rasa argument was still only applied to epistemology. And despite taking years of biology I found no sort of proof to "genetic memory" or purely hereditary/genetic moralities and such. Those who like the blank slate argument are those that believe they are who they make themselves. And to call that wrong is a falsehood in and of itself.

And as far as admitting error, her philosophy is more like a "believe what you will until proven wrong." Instead of not having an opinion on something (which she considered neigh impossible) she advocating sticking to your opinion until you found something that made you think otherwise. So if there's any crime there it's just her being blind. But she's not the only person not to see another's reasoning. It's like the "innocent until proven guilty philosophy" (albeit in her personal case, a one-sided court of appeals).

There are bits of objectivism that I don't particularly like but to condemn them as absolutely not true is wrong in it's own right. All of those skeptics have to admit she might be right "because we can't know anything for certain."

When the truth can never be known why bother finding it? I don't think philosophy's purpose is to tell us it's purposeless or to define what we can't know. I'll stick with the renaissance humanism.

Even though I find her ignorance trying at times, I find a good deal of truth in there, and some interesting concepts. No philosopher in the past has ever been completely right or wrong. (but THAT, at least, is possible if very unlikely).

gregnyquist said...

"I think that was the point...acting the 'proper' way was a choice that she claimed had not been made in full correctly up until her."

This misses the point of the human nature argument against Rand. The point is that human nature creates biases that would cause most people to reject Rand's "proper" way. Rand, of course, evaded these biases by denying they exist.

"Those who like the blank slate argument are those that believe they are who they make themselves. And to call that wrong is a falsehood in and of itself."

This is one of the oddest non sequiturs I've ever run across. While it might be true that some of those who accept the blank slate do those for self-congratulatory reasons, their motivation has nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the blank slate. Nor is it clear how calling the blank slate argument wrong is a falsehood "in and of itself," particularly in the light of the evidence, which strongly suggests that human beings are neither blank slates nor self-creators.

"And as far as admitting error, her philosophy is more like a 'believe what you will until proven wrong.'"

Where did Rand ever say such a thing, or any of her orthodox disciples? I think it's highly doubtful Rand would have supported such a position, since it amounts to giving people a blank check to believe whatever they like on any issue where evidence is lacking.

"All of those skeptics have to admit she might be right 'because we can't know anything for certain.'"

But this assumes that all claims to knowledge are equally plausible. Which skeptic believes that? You don't need certainty to believe that a view is grossly implausible (such as Rand's blank slate view of human nature). A denial of certainty merely amounts to the confession that there exists a risk of error, however small, in any claim of knowledge, and that the goal of truth seeking, "humanistic" or otherwise, is to make that risk as small as humanly possible by criticizing knowledge claims as thoroughly as practical contingencies allow.

Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...

That "infantile" stuff wasn't hers either. It was around even before Locke's tabula rasa. And that tabula rasa argument was still only applied to epistemology. And despite taking years of biology I found no sort of proof to "genetic memory" or purely hereditary/genetic moralities and such. Those who like the blank slate argument are those that believe they are who they make themselves. And to call that wrong is a falsehood in and of itself.

It's interesting to say the list that you would cite Locke's position on tabula rasa, espoused in the 1600s, in defending whether Rand should have been better educated in the 1900s, especially in the 1960s, on a scientific issue. That a position is not original to Rand says nothing about whether it is correct and says even less about whether she wasn't been intellectually dishonest or negligent holding it.

There is an approach in behavioral genetics and/or evolutionary psychology for understanding what the degree of variation for a certain behavior/trait is primarily a result of learning or a result of genes. Of course, everything is a function of both - you can't grow without food, so genes can't fully express themselves without nutrition, but if nutrition was held constant or considered not to be a primary determinant of ideas, would all people turn out the same?

There are many behaviors/ideas that people arrive at in all cultures in the world and that dogs do not - the obvious reason for biologists would be that the dog has different genes from those of humans, but you might have a different explanation. The primary defense of genetic influences on human behavior is the greater similarity of the behaviors of identical twins raised apart than fraternal twins or siblings raised together. It's fairly straightforward stuff that people twist themselves in knots denying.

The main problem with Rand is that she thought

1)she was always thinking correctly and
2)that others were always mistaken when they did not agree with her.

She could not understand that differences in thinking could be sourced in differences in human nature that were not tractable to what she considered "reason". More honest and skeptical thinkers were willing to admit this, even if they felt that they were objectively right.

Anonymous said...

"The main problem with Rand is that she thought

1)she was always thinking correctly and
2)that others were always mistaken when they did not agree with her."

...and as Whittaker Chambers pointed out...thinking like that can only lead to one conclusion; to the gas chambers go!

- Steven Johnston

Ellen Stuttle said...
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Ellen Stuttle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Stuttle said...

[typos troubles; sorry for the deletes.]

Xtra Laj said: "Oh, and her infantile 'blank slate' stuff. I don't think she ever read a biology textbook."

K. R. said: "That 'infantile' stuff wasn't hers either. It was around even before Locke's tabula rasa."

Xtra Laj said: "It's interesting to say the [least] that you would cite Locke's position on tabula rasa, espoused in the 1600s, in defending whether Rand should have been better educated in the 1900s, especially in the 1960s, on a scientific issue. That a position is not original to Rand says nothing about whether it is correct and says even less about whether she wasn't been intellectually dishonest or negligent holding it."


In the 1960s, all the reigning theories were environmentalist -- Behaviorism and its formalizing in Hull-Spence learning theory in psychology, cultural determinisim in anthropology, economic-class determinism in sociology. Where Rand differed from mainstream theories was in being non-determinist, not in being non-nativist. It wasn't until after *Sociobiology* was published in 1975 -- to be greeted by a terrific uproar because of the last chapter on human societies -- that evolutionary-causative explanations of human behavior started to become popular among segments of the academic community. By 1975, Rand was at the end of her publishing career. January-February 1976 was the last issue of *The Ayn Rand Letter*.

If you want an historic overview of how strong a hold the blank-slate idea has had on prevailing theories of human nature, see Steven Pinker's *The Blank Slate*, published in 2002. He didn't write that long book to counter Ayn Rand.

The only place he even mentions her is on page 255, where he gets her wrong (he speaks of "an Ayn Randian individualism in which every man is an island") and, ironically, suggests as the "real alternative to romantic collectivism" "a recognition that social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of *reciprocity*," i.e., mutual trade to mutual advantage.

Xtra Laj said...

Ellen,

1) The original "infantile" quote is from Matt Warren, not myself.

2) It is possible to make all kinds of excuses for Rand's view of human nature, but the claim that she agreed with the prevalent science is not convincing to me - it's more that she agreed with the prevalent science since it suited her, a prevalent science which many people found ridiculous. She was willing to seek out iconoclastic views just to buttress her positions. She favorably reviewed Chomsky's criticisms of behaviorism, while rejecting Chomsky's innatism. But her uncharitable approach to reading and interpreting people is the real negligence here - if she had endeavored to understand people who they wanted to be understood, as opposed to interpreting them however she wanted to interpret them, plenty of Rand's arrogance would have been tempered.

3) I actually think Pinker's characterization of Rand is correct, but I interpret him far more charitably than you do, which is not surprising given our differences on these issues. I think that there is a clear difference between the kind of individualism that Pinker describes and supports in The Blank Slate and the one that Rand describes in her books like Atlas Shrugged. Pinker's first quote is best interpreted in the context of Rand's focus on the individual and her devaluation of the family. His second quote describes the evolutionary basis of altruistic tendencies (not altruism as Objectivists use the term), his point being that understanding their evolutionary basis allows for a more realistic consideration of their virtues and limitations.

gregnyquist said...

"It wasn't until after *Sociobiology* was published in 1975 that evolutionary-causative explanations of human behavior started to become popular among segments of the academic community. By 1975, Rand was at the end of her publishing career...."

The key here is not so much evolutionary-causative explanations, as it is the evidence brought forward by behavioral genetics against the blank slate. Would Rand have changed her mind if confronted by such evidence? I doubt it. The blank slate was far too important to her philosophy. It underpins her theory of history — a theory which provides the blueprint for achieving her political goals. It also provides her with a pretext for rejecting the traditional view of human nature that served as the basis of the U.S. Constitution and is explicated by Madison in the Federalist Papers and is dramatized in Shakespeare and other great works of literature. It was important for Rand to reject this traditional view because it conflicted with her notions concerning the "ideal" man, i.e., the man who "has no inner conflicts," whose "mind and ... consciousness [are] in perfect harmony."

Rand's philosophy also gives her pretexts for dismissing the evidence of behavior genetics. Recall that Rand believed that, on the broadest issues, philosophy had a veto power over science. Also recall that Rand regarded the traditional view of human nature (i.e., that human beings are influenced by innate tendencies) as contrary to her view of free will. Recall as well that Rand's view of free will is considered "axiomatic," that is, it is regarded as a basic fact of reality which has regulative power over everything subsumed under it. Recall all these various aspects of Objectivism and one can see how Rand would have likely responded if confronted with the evidence of behavior genetics.

Neil Parille said...

Greg,

I'll have to look up the quotes, but Rand said in her Q&A that someone could raise his IQ from 100 to 140, or something to that effect. Peikoff was onced asked what Rand would have thought about studies that show that IQ is largely genetic and he said it wouldn't matter because people only use a small amount of their intelligence.

Binswanger was once rather dismissive of the claim that IQ was largely hereditary because it clashed with his view of human nature.

-Neil Parille

Xtra Laj said...

Recall that Rand believed that, on the broadest issues, philosophy had a veto power over science.

While not exclusively a property of Objectivism (many other religions have something similar), this is, to my mind, probably its most pernicious intellectual doctrine.

Anonymous said...

"...but Rand said in her Q&A that someone could raise his IQ from 100 to 140, or something to that effect."

Was it by going 'clear' through dianetics? LOL

- Steven Johnston