Monday, October 11, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 15

Objectivist argument for free will. According to Objectivism, free will is “axiomatic,” which means (1) it’s “self-evident,” “fundamentally given and directly perceived”; and (2) the denial of free will is self-refuting. Let’s examine each of these claims.

(1) free will is self-evident. Here’s the “argument,” compliments of Leonard Peikoff:

How, then, do we know that man has volition? It is a self-evident fact, available to any act of introspection.

You the reader can perceive every potentiality I have been discussing simply by observing your own consciousness. The extent of your knowledge or intelligence is not relevant here, because the issue is whether you use whatever knowledge and intelligence you do possess. At this moment, for example, you can decide to read attentively and struggle to understand, judge, apply the material — or you can let your attention wander and the words wash over you, half-getting some points, then coming to for a few sentences, then lapsing again into partial focus. If something you read makes you feel fearful or uneasy, you can decide to follow the point anyway and consider it on its merits — or you can brush it aside by an act of evasion, while mumbling some rationalization to still any pangs of guilt. At each moment, you are deciding to think or not to think. The fact that you regularly make these kinds of choices is directly accessible to you, as it is to any volitional consciousness.

The principle of volition is a philosophic axiom, with all the features this involves….

Behind Peikoff’s argument is an important but unstated assumption. Peikoff is assuming that acts of introspection yield self-evident truth. Whatever a man observes through introspection is “fundamentally given and directly perceived” and, by implication, axiomatic. So if a man observed himself being controlled by forces not of his making, this would make the principle of determinism a self-evident fact worthy of being embalmed as an axiomatic truth.

Does introspection really yield self-evident facts? No, of course not. Nor is it an assumption that any Objectivist, from Rand down, would ever consistently adhere to. People observe through introspection, for example, unbidden emotions which they cannot control. They feel angry, sad, fretful, anxious, regardless of whether they wish to feel these things. As even Objectivism concedes, human beings do not have direct control over emotions. They experience, introspectively, emotions rising up within them, irrespective of any volition. So does this not mean that feelings are determined? Isn’t that the “self-evident” fact directly observed through introspection? But no, not at all. When it comes to emotions, Rand took an entirely different approach: “In the field of introspection,” she declared, “the two guiding questions are: ‘What do I feel?’ and ‘Why do I feel it?’” But wait a minute! Whatever happened to direct contact with the facts assumed by Peikoff in his argument about volition? By implication, Objectivism rejects the notion that emotions are beyond volitional control, even though this is how we experience them in introspection. So if our experience can mislead us in the case of emotions, why can’t it mislead us in reference to attention, focus, and thought? How can introspective observation be “self-evident” in one instance and not the other? This is left unexplained in Objectivism because neither Rand nor any of her disciples ever noticed the inconsistency.

(2) Determinism is self-refuting. Again Peikoff provides the argument:

When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him….
If a determinist tried to assess his viewpoint as knowledge, he would have to say, in effect: “I am in control of my mind. I do have the power to decide to focus on reality. I do not merely submit spinelessly to whatever distortions happen to be decreed by some chain of forces stretching back to infinity. I am free, free to be objective, free to conclude — that I am not free.

Like any rejection of a philosophic axiom, determinism is self-refuting.

This argument gratuitously assumes that the individual must be able to control his own mind in order to know anything. Yet what is the rationale for such an assumption? Why can’t the mind, operating on its own principles, gather in data from external existence, analyze it, and reach conclusions? There is nothing logically inconsistent in such a notion. That it seems a trifle strange does not constitute a self-refutation. It won’t do to confuse the strange or the paradoxical with the illogical. Computers, which are deterministic systems through and through, with no volition of their own, can reach conclusions from data fed to them. Why couldn’t the mind of the determinist behave in a similar fashion?

Even more objectionable, however, is the caricature of determinism in Peikoff’s argument. Determinism may be as implausible as you like, but it’s hardly the thin gruel of a doctrine presented by Peikoff. It comes in many different versions and brands, many of which are quite sophisticated and not so easily refuted. One could believe, for example, that while the intellect may be volitional, the will (i.e., Rand’s emotional mechanism) is determined, so that a man may control his mind but not his temper. All kinds of variants and mixtures are possible, most of which are not even broached by Peikoff’s argument.

The bottom line is this: the arguments essayed by Peikoff for free will and against determinism are both grossly inadequate and hardly rise to the level required by “self-evidence.”


Cavewight said...

Peikoff: "When the determinist claims that man is determined, this applies to all of man’s ideas also, including his own advocacy of determinism. Given the factors operating on him, he believes, he had to become a determinist, just as his opponents had no alternative but to oppose him. How then can he know that his viewpoint is true? Are the factors that shape his brain infallible? Does he automatically follow reason and logic? Clearly not; if he did, error would be impossible to him...Like any rejection of a philosophic axiom, determinism is self-refuting."

Does anybody here besides me see that Peikoff has plagiarized a Nathaniel Branden essay he wrote for the Objectivist Newsletter?

May 1963, article "The Contradiction of Determinism" by Nathaniel Branden-

"The determinist concept of mind maintains that whether a man thinks of not, whether he takes cognizance of the facts of reality or not, whether he holds facts above feelings or feelings above facts - all are determined by forces outside his control; in any given moment or situation, his method of mental functioning is the inevitable product of an endless chain of antecedent factors; *he* has no choice in the matter.

"That which a man does, declare the advocates of determinism, he *had* to do - that which he believes, he *had* to believe - if he focuses his mind, he *had* to - if he is guided solely by reason, he *had* to be - if he is ruled instead by feeling or whim, he *had* to be - he *couldn't* help it.

"But if this were true, no *knowledge* would be possible to man. No theory could claim greater plausibility than any other - including the theory of psychological determinism.

"Those who expound determinism must either assert that they arrived at their theory by mystical revelation, and thus exclude themselves from the realm of reason - or they must assert that *they* are an exception to the theory they propound, and thus exclude their theory from the realm of truth."

Dragonfly said...

The problem with the Objectivists is that they talk about volition and determinism without trying to define what they mean by those terms, as if they're just obvious. What we can learn by introspection is only that what becomes available to our consciousness, which is only the upper layer of an enormous complex of brain processes. The latter remain complete outside the very superficial view of introspection.

That we by introspection can't discern why we make a certain choice does not imply that this choice couldn't be determined by those brain processes, it only means that we may introspect what our conscious thoughts are, but not why we have those thoughts. That we cannot predict our own thoughts (and that they therefore seem to be "free") does not imply that those thoughts are not determined.

The so-called "self-refutation" of determinism is also fallacious. A deterministic system doesn't have to be infallible, it's sufficient that it in general draws more correct conclusions than false ones. The biological evolution has produced a human brain that is certainly not infallible, but that nevertheless is not a random device that cannot distinguish good evidence from bad evidence. Brains that are not efficient have been weeded out. This is further strengthened by a cultural evolution, where conclusions, results, information can be registered and transmitted to other people and to next generations. If a scientist somewhere draws an incorrect conclusion, this will be sooner or later corrected by others and the thinking machines are flexible enough to accept better explanations, explanations that make things work, creating an increasingly powerful technology, which makes it a self-reinforcing system. Reality is the ultimate arbiter in deciding which conclusions are correct and which not. There is for example little doubt that an atomic bomb is a more fearful weapon than a voodoo doll, that's how scientists can know that their atomic theories do have a point and are more than just arbitrary fancy constructions.

Many people still think of determinism as some primitive and simplistic system of canned responses (as in those early computer programs that were supposed to be able to "talk"), not realizing that there is nothing to prevent in principle deterministic machines to be highly sophisticated and flexible systems that can analyze complex situations and derive correct conclusions.

Cavewight said...


I don't know anybody who thinks that determinism is a set of canned responses. That is a common complaint about post-modernism, and in that case it is a well-known and valid complaint.

Nathaniel Branden's argument against determinism, published while he was still part of the movement, states that it is being offered up as truth; but if true, Branden concludes that such knowledge would be impossible for us in a deterministic universe. Therefore determinism is self-refuting on epistemic grounds. We could not, in fact, know if anything was true in a deterministic framework.

As for Peikoff's argument as given above, there is obviously some text missing due to the ellipses so we don't know what his argument is.

In fact, I have just now counted four entire paragraphs of argument that have been omitted by the ellipses. So it is possible that Peikoff was not arguing from the idea of deterministic infallibility.

I would say that Peikoff's core argument is found here: 'The determinist's position amounts to the following. "My mind does not automatically conform to facts, yet I have no choice about its course. I have no way to choose reality to be my guide as against subjective feeling, social pressure, or the falsifications inherent in being only semiconscious. If and when I distort the evidence through sloppiness or laziness, or place popularity above logic, or evade out of fear, or hide my evasions from myself under layers of rationalizations and lies, I have to do it, even if I realize at the time how badly I am acting. Whatever the irrationalities that warp and invalidate my mind's conclusion on any issue, they are irresistible, like every event in my history, and could not have been otherwise." If such were the case, a man could not rely on his own judgment. He could claim nothing as objective knowledge, including the theory of determinism.'

Cavewight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cavewight said...

As for Peikoff's alleged self-evidence of free-will, I see it all the time and I don't see how anybody but a complete ARIan fool can believe it.

However, based on the argument against Determinism, the following argument could be made:

1. If the universe is deterministic, then knowledge becomes impossible.

2. The universe is indeterministic (and free-will exists).

3. Therefore, knowledge is possible.

Xtra Laj said...

"If the universe is deterministic, knowledge is impossible."

I know at least one determinist (Brand Blanshard) who believed the precise opposite - that without determinism, knowledge is impossible. His argument was that if the truth of a conclusion was not part of the reason you were *forced* to accept it, then there is no reason why it is important to believe what is true. You can't choose what is true or false - you think it has to be true or you don't.

This is the reason why I tend to regard such speculative philosophy as ultimately dangerous if one is not skeptical about its status to provide useful knowledge.

For me, the real problem with Objectivism's view of determinism is that it is used as a tool to disrespect any form of experimental psychology that doesn't use philosophic premises and ideas as the primary determinants of human choice and behavior. The view of human nature that arises from this is very dangerous for many of the reasons that Greg has already pointed out. Your answer to the question of determinis/free will is not as important as how/whether it affects your study of people around you. It sometimes does in many ways, and that is the problem.

Anonymous said...

Cavewright: "If the universe is deterministic, then knowledge becomes impossible."

There seems to be a step, or perhaps several hundred, missing between the premise and the conclusion. Perhaps I am just slow. Could you fill in the gap for me?

I am having particular problems with reconciling the claim with C. elegans, which certainly has knowledge of its environment, although the exact structure of its 302-cell nervous system is genetically-determined and identical in all individuals.

(My own personal view is similar to that of Dragonfly; we may or may not have free will, but no human has the capability to perceive, much less understand, the processes whereby what we experience as conscious thought arise from neural activity.)

Cavewight said...


I neglected to mention that the missing steps were contained in some of the comments above. The original Peikoff quote contained missing steps, four paragraphs to be exact, and I did the honor of filling in the gap by providing what I thought was the heart of Peikoff's argument. Then there is Nathaniel Branden's argument along the same vein which he published in May 1963 for the Objectivist Newsletter. I used these to show that Peikoff is passing off Branden's very similar argument as his own. I wouldn't say they are identical, only that Branden definitely made Peikoff possible in regard to this argument.

I don't wish to fill this comment page with requotes so I will just refer you back to the top of this page where if first quoted the 1963 Branden argument.

Cavewight said...

Xtra Laj,

It appears that you ended your comment on a subjective note. The issue of determinism vs. free-will may be important to those who use these ideas to study others around them, or it may be important to others for some other reason. (And anyway, whatever happened to Socrates' dictum to "know thyself"?)

As far as studying those around me, to the extent that I do, I try to focus on similarities between myself and them, whereas most people focus only on the differences. The key to understanding negative emotions, such as anger, is to see them in terms of separateness which can only be based on focusing attention on differences that don't really exist.

Or one could look at this in Christian terms and say that the only way to treat one's neighbor as oneself is to see that the differences are illusory, what really exists are similarities. This helps eliminate the double standard by means of which we almost always forgive ourselves yet we guilt others for committing the very same actions.

Free will vs. determinism has nothing *directly* to do with any of - what I personally would consider - important issues. There is an indirectly related issue in which we tend to see ourselves as victims of circumstances, thus blameless, yet see others as completely free-willed, thus blameworthy.

Daniel Barnes said...

N Branden::
>"But if this [strict determinism] were true, no *knowledge* would be possible to man. No theory could claim greater plausibility than any other - including the theory of psychological determinism."

Anon is right - this is a non-sequitur.

We can see the problem by looking at the opposite claim. For if *indeterminism* is true, then unpredictable things can happen - things that we can't *know in advance*.

Therefore knowledge might equally be said to be impossible here too - or at least, certain knowledge.

The issue of knowledge is basically irrelevant to strict determinism. If the human mind is like a computer, as determinists argue, it knows how to do things just the same way as redial function knows how to call a recent phone number. It's just doing what it's programmed to do. Objectivists are just misrepresenting determinist arguments.

Cavewight said...


Unpredictable things can happen in either view. The issue is not unpredictability, but causality, specifically, two very different forms of causality if we consider free-will a form of it (as cause-in-itself).

Determinism restricts science to that which can be brought within a strict rational discipline, usually to that which can be quantified. Free-will may not be regarded as false, only as, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.

Today's Objectivists would dismiss this view as somehow irrelevant and treat all determinism as some absolutist variety. There are no shades of grey.

However, in an early essay of the Objectivist magazine, determinism was divided into the "hard" and "soft" variants.

Cavewight said...

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. --- anonymous

SRegan said...

Surprised no-one's picked up on the fundamental issue with the Objectivist 'refutation' of determinism. Leaving aside the fact that it represents a strawman of the determinist position, it essentially constitutes the following:-

1.) Assume determinism is true;
2.) Therefore man has no true volitional control over what he holds to be true;
3.) Beliefs which do not derive from true volition are philosophically invalid;
4.) Therefore even if determinism were true the belief in determinism would be invalid;
5.) Ergo determinism is false or must be held to be false.

The problem is, of course, that this is quite obvious question-begging; if 1.) is true, then 3.) cannot be adhered to! Put more simply, if your philosophy leads you to conclude that it is not 'philosophically correct' to believe statements it assumes as part of an argument, then the problem is self-evidently with your philosophy and not with reality.

To refuse to believe that the laws of physics apply to each step in the cognitive process (and that therefore the outcomes of cognition are predictable) on the basis that it contradicts a doctrine of your philosophy is to concede that your philosophy does not have any ground in reality and is an aesthetic rather than truth-seeking system.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an Objectivist, but it seems to me that Piekoff and Brandon are being straw man'd here.

There seem to be two separate claims being made:

A. free will is self evidently true based on introspection
B. if determinism were true, we can't claim to truly know anything.

A can be false while B is still true.

Brandon and Piekoff aren't saying, if B, then determinism is false.

They seem to be saying, free will is axiomatic and self-evidently true, AND, BTW, any argument you make against free will relies on free will in order to qualify as rational.