Sunday, August 29, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 6

Rand’s axioms: Existence exists. Now lets examine the Objectivist axioms, beginning with the axiom of existence. The Objectivist axioms are very instructive as to the dangers of an overly-speculative, rationalistic, largely verbal philosophy. Rand uses the vagueness of her axioms to confuse their tautological meaning with other more problematic meanings. This confusion is at the very heart of the Objectivist axioms.

When we say that some object such as a cat or dog exists, we mean that they have a substantive, independent existence “in reality." Unicorns aren’t recognized as existing or as "real," because no such entity exists in the world of fact and matter. But although unicorns don't exist as real animals, they could be said to exist as an idea or an object of the imagination. If we accept that unicorns exist in this sense, we must also admit that this "non-real" type of existence is very different from the existence that dogs and cats enjoy. It will not do to conflate these two types of existence.

When Objectivists insist that “existence exists,” in what sense do they mean it? In the cat and dog sense, or in the unicorn sense?

“The axiom of Existence states that something exists,” writes David Kelley. “This is the most basic fact of reality. It is simply the statement that there is reality; that whatever there is, is, that whatever one perceives is there to be perceived.”

From these statements, it seems that Objectivism endorses the cat and dog sense of existence. Existence exists becomes merely a pithy way of saying reality exists. Yet Kelley later on backs away from this interpretation: “Notice that [none of the Objectivst axioms make] any specific statement about the nature of what exists. For example, the axiom of existence does not assert the existence of a physical or material world as opposed to a mental one.” [The Logical Structure of Objectivism, 20-22]

So it would appear that existence is used in the unicorn sense. Existence exists merely indicates that something, however ephemeral, exists. It could be a mere idea or essence or image, entirely mythical, like the unicorn. If so, how can Kelley describe this idea as a “basic fact of reality” or equate the phrase existence exists with the phrase reality exists. If all that exists is a stream of essences trickling through consciousness, how can that be described as reality—or, even worse, as a fact of reality?

If we examine all this from a foundationalist mindset (a mindset which Objectivists must honor if they wish to remain consistent), it is clear that the Objectivist axiom of existence fails to deliver what it promises. In the sense that it is foundationally true and obvious (i.e., in the unicorn sense), it is merely an empty, mostly irrelevant tautology. In the sense that it is meaningful, it is neither obvious nor self-evident, but is problematic and conjectural. Kelley describes axioms as “statements validated directly by perceptual observation.” While all sane people believe that existence exists in the cat and dog sense of the term, this belief is not “validated” by direct perceptual observation. Our belief in reality (and it is only a belief) is based on something far more complex and enduring than mere observation. A man, if he has drunk enough whiskey, may observe a pink elephant riding on a unicorn. Yet to say that this pink elephant exists because the drunk is conscious of it is to lapse into palpable idealism. It is only when we have brought intelligence and our practical sense of things (which is based on memory, the “validity” of which is deeply problematical and hardly self-evident) to bear on this observation that we can determine that it is far from real.

To say that “something” exists in the unicorn sense of the term constitutes no great insight into the foundations of knowledge or reality. Who denies it? Objectivists are under the illusion that there exists this large contingent of philosophers that deny the axiom existence exists in the trivial, unicorn sense of the phrase. But strange to say, they cannot produce any such philosopher.


Anonymous said...

"Objectivists are under the illusion that there exists this large contingent of philosophers that deny the axiom existence exists in the trivial, unicorn sense of the phrase. But strange to say, they cannot produce any such philosopher."

This speaks to me of why Rand was never really taken seriously in the academy: scholarly practice usually involves naming the people whose ideas you are critiquing or building on, and summarizing them accurately and in good faith before you agree or disagree. Rand typically did neither.

Those she claimed to disagree with (with the exception of Kant) were usually never named. This is ironic, since it made it difficult to confirm that her adversaries "existed."

- Chris

Rey said...

And it seems pretty clear that she never read Kant's works herself, but had people read their own extracts of Kant to her, which is problematic, to say the least, if you're then goning to expound on the evils of Kant.

Also, when I read Betram Wolfe's "Three Who Made a Revolution" I was struck by how similar in style and content Lenin's critiques of Kant were to Rand's. In fact, it struck me how similar Rand's whole style of argumentation is to Lenin's, and I don't mean in the academic terms delineated in Sciabarra's "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical." Rather, I'm referring to Lenin's own misreadings, fallacies, and all around bad faith displayed toward his political and philosophical opponents and rivals. Of course, Lenin was revolutionary seeking real power, so no trick was too dirty or underhanded when it came to realizing his goals.

What's Rand's excuse?

gregnyquist said...

"And it seems pretty clear that she never read Kant's works herself..."

According to Jennifer Burns, Rand's introduction to Kant came through Isabel Paterson. Indeed, much of Rand's philosophy appears like a vulgarization of what she learned from Paterson, including even the phrase "A is A," which Paterson loved to repeat as way of stressing the importance of "reason." Paterson at least seems to have read original sources. But Paterson was a bit too temperamental and "difficult" to be entirely reliable as an interpreter of Western thought. And Paterson's take on Kant and other such luminaries would be distorted even more by Rand, who had no conscience at all about such things. As a matter of fact, Rand's inability to understand the intended meaning of an author was so extreme that in her case, reading original sources really would have been a waste of time. Rand had little, if any, appreciation of the vagueness of words, or how easy it is, once malice and ideological pretension hold sway, to twist the words of any philosopher she despised (i.e., just about every philosopher other than Aristotle) in ways that fit her general narrative.

The vagueness of words is precisely the reason why philosophy has to remain empirically responsible if it is to be taken seriously at all. This means that philosophical statements should either be empirically testable or, if that's not possible, at least have practical consequences of some sort. It also means that Rand's claims about "reason" are largely mythical. When reduced to empirical terms, reason is merely rationalization via equivocation, with the vagueness of words used to reach whatever conclusion the heart desires. Rationality only emerges where thorough empirical criticism exists.

Anonymous said...

Yes but at least Peikoff and the ARI drones quote from sources when they 'debunk' Kant...or do they? I was told by the UKOA that they do...but when I asked for the sources they quoted from answer came back there none.

Talking to them is very frustrating as they never give you a straight answer, merely a humurous one. Or their idea of a humurous one.

Me: Have you read any books by Kant?
Objectivists: Yes
Me: Erm...go on then, which ones?
Objectivists: Enough.

They haven't read any books by Kant have they, neither did Rand and what is the bet that Peikoff an co. don't quote from Kant either or provide any references. You just have to take their word for it. Don't ever ask for a title, edition & page number - that was the mistake I made. I'm still waiting.

- Steven Johnston

Matt Warren said...

I read Rand's works during the birth of the internet culture, before 'blog' was even a term. Only now that I've reacquainted myself with her writings do I really notice the fact that there were essentially no citations.

Even the most half-assed blogger conforms to referencing habits that make her look thoroughly inadequate. As Chris stated at the outset of the comments, this is probably the most likely reason she wasn't taken seriously.

Previously I noted how she appeared to love science, but not the messiness and the error-correction (which presumes that she *gasp* didn't know everything). Apparently, she also didn't like the scholarly culture of reference and debate, either.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Matt,

You are quite right: Rand's lack of citations is what gives her writing, despite its obvious passion, an underlying shyster-like quality. You feel she's really only comfortable attacking straw men - and even that she doesn't actually even get the problem she thinks she's solving. An outstanding example: she constantly attacks Kant, yet there are only a handful of direct quotes from him in all her oeuvre, and most of those (as I recall) in a single essay about Helen Keller. Kind of lightweight evidence for a guy you're wanting to convict as the greatest villain in history...

Daniel Barnes said...

Incidentally Rand fans rationalize this lack of citation as being due to Rand's incredible ability to extract the "essentials" of her opponents' arguments. Who needs tedious citations - or even readings! - when you're that awesome...;-)

Xtra Laj said...

My favorite example of this is how Rand talks about the "is-ought" argument in ethics without quoting any philosopher who supports her version of it.

When you attack Rand, you are guilty of not understanding the depth of her thought. But when Objectivists/Rand attack their opponents in far shallower and biased manners, they are brilliant at zeroing in and focusing on the essentials of their opponent's arguments.

gurugeorge said...

Hmm, not sure about this. As I understand the Objectivist axioms, they're truths that are implicit in anything and everything one might say - but that's to say, all three of them are, they're tied together.

IOW, "There is something not me, it has a specific identity, and I'm distinct from it and conscious of it" is implicit in any meaningful communication - to deny any of these is to "steal the concept" because any denial involves an affirmation of those axioms.

Whether it's important or interesting to point this out, is another question, but it doesn't seem to be as meaningless and trivial as you are suggesting. The axioms have substantive content, but it's at the highest possible level of abstraction.

At least this is how I'm interpreting Rand charitably ;)

Xtra Laj said...

Whether it's important or interesting to point this out, is another question, but it doesn't seem to be as meaningless and trivial as you are suggesting. The axioms have substantive content, but it's at the highest possible level of abstraction.

At least this is how I'm interpreting Rand charitably ;)

I agree with your charitable interpretation but its problems are well known and are highlighted in this modern rebuttal.

The point is that there is nothing wrong with skepticism (the belief that knowledge is conjectural and certainty is limited). Believing that how you think is how reality is structured may very well be true, but the issue is how is it justified? Justification is often not logical but pragmatic in nature.

Rand understood this but denied it. Confusing certitude as an emotion with certainty as epistemic justification, she went on to rail against people who expressed doubts about her agenda and were of a more temperate frame of mind.

Xtra Laj said...

To clarify the link above a bit, Objectivism uses a special foundations approach. It considers the axioms and philosophy to be special, privileged knowledge. Harman's criticisms apply to it.

Anonymous said...

All the criticism on this blog seems to miss a very basic point - that "existence" is an axiomatic concept. IOW, it is fundamentally a "concept". So, unless you are ready to talk of what concepts are, how humans form concepts and hence why and how Objectivists see "existence", "identity" and "consciousness" as axiomatic concepts, you are not really attacking the axiomatic concepts themselves but a strawman of those concepts.

Andrew Priest said...

Forgive me, but I can not for the life of me be sure of what you're trying to say. Are you saying that it's the concept of existence and not existence itself that the axiom refers to? The concept of existence exists. Well, duh. So does the concept of God. And dragons for that matter.