Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 16

Seddon’s defense of Rand’s free will. In Fred Seddon’s review of my book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, we find the following curious assertion: “I would point out that the Objectivist position is very close to that of Karl Popper.” While superficially there are points in common between Popper’s criticism of determinism and Rand’s, the differences are more telling.

1. First and perhaps most important of all, Popper doesn’t support free will and oppose determinism in order to support a view of human nature that goes against the wisdom of human experience and the evidence of experimental and evolutionary psychology. If Rand’s view of free will were correct, predictions based on human nature would be untenable, since such predictions are generally based on the idea that there exist innate tendencies which will favor certain results over others. Hence, if I claim that great wealth tends over time to soften a nation, making it ripe for destruction, I’m making an inference from human nature. This is an inference which Rand would have rejected on the grounds that people have free will and can choose not to be “softened” by wealth. By claiming that innate tendencies don’t exist, Rand undermines the ability to understand human motivation and the evolution of the social order.

Leonard Peikoff, in his short memoir “My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand,” unintentionally demonstrates how Rand’s views on these issues caused havoc in her personal life. “Ayn Rand refused to make collective judgments [about the individuals in her circle]. Each time she unmasked one of these individuals [i.e., broke from them] she struggled to learn from her mistake. But then she would be deceived again by some new variant.” [VOR, 350] Rand’s failure to make “collective judgments” is another way of saying that she failed to respect the home truths of human nature. She expected her acolytes to think, feel and behave like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, rather than as human beings. She failed to recognize that many of the weaknesses which plague the human animal are congenital, rooted in biology and the human condition, and that they can never be overcome (assuming they can be overcome at all) if they are not first recognized and dealt with in the open.

Although Popper was every bit as much an opponent of determinism as was Rand, this did not lead him to adopt a view of free will that, at least by implication, denies that human behavior is explicable. Popper does not claim, as Peikoff once did, that what makes a person “think or evade” “cannot be further explained.” No, on the contrary, Popper admits that human behavior is at least somewhat predictable:

It is undeniable that we often predict the behavior of animals, and also of men, very successfully. Moreover, these predictions tend to become better and better as we learn more and more about the man or the animal; and they may be still further improved by a systematic study of their behavior. There is no reason why this process of learning more and more about behavior should ever come to an end. [The Open Universe, 15]

2. Popper’s arguments against determinism are far more complex and sophisticated than Rand’s. In fact, they are too complicated to be reproduced here. Moreover, Popper does not claim that his arguments decisively refute metaphysical determinism or achieve the status of self-evident axioms. He recognizes that “metaphysical” determinism, because it is “metaphysical,” is irrefutable (i.e., untestable). Popper merely seeks to refute a specific type of determinism, namely, what he calls “scientific” determinism.

3. In his book on determinism, Popper mentions an argument issued by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. This argument, first introduced by Haldane in 1898, is so similar to Rand’s that one wonders if there isn’t a connection between the two. Popper quotes Haldane as follows: “I am not myself a materialist [Haldane wrote,] because if materialism is true, it seems to me that we cannot know that it is true. If my opinions are the result of the chemical processes going on in my brain, they are determined by the laws of chemistry, not those of logic.” Although Popper sympathizes with the intent of Haldene’s argument, he understands its weaknesses. “This somewhat strange argument does not, of course, refute the doctrine of “scientific” determinism,” Popper acknowledges.

In conclusion: Seddon's claim that Objectivism's position on free will and determinism is "very close" to that of Karl Popper is a palpable exaggeration.


Neil Parille said...


Like Haldane, Darwin wrote:


Why is thought, being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter.


Interesting take on Peikoff's statement about Rand's failure to undestand people.

As I think I've said before, an Objectivist should have no qualms about one world government as long as the right people are in charge or even making Leonard Peikoff dictator.

-Neil Parille

Cavewight said...

Excellent post, Greg, an enjoyable read. Where did Rand offer the argument that determinism is self-refuting in that it makes knowledge impossible? The Haldane reference was a good catch. I too have found from time to time that someone in the past has duplicated a future Rand declaration. There is nothing new under the sun.

gregnyquist said...

"Where did Rand offer the argument that determinism is self-refuting in that it makes knowledge impossible? "

Rand delegated this task to her underlings. As far as I know, the first Objectivist presentation of the argument appeared in Barbara Branden's thesis, Human Freedom and Human Mechanism. It was later restated by Nathaniel Branden and (many years later in OPAR) by Leonard Peikoff.

There's also a bit of a controversy over another restatement of the argument by Murray Rothbard in his essay "The Mantle of Science." N. Branden alleged that Rothbard had plagiarized Barbara Branden's thesis, and this is sometimes presented as the reason for Rothbard's break with Rand in the late 50s.

If, as seems likely, Barbara Branden got the argument from Rand, where did Rand get it from? Did she make it up on her own? Perhaps, but I rather doubt it. She probably got it from Isabel Paterson, who probably got it (first or second hand) from Haldane himself. But all this is mere guess work and not terribly important, since the argument really isn't all that good or special, hardly even worth the trouble of plagiarizing.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>Rand delegated this task to her underlings.

Then perhaps the idea arose during one of their many 1950s discussion periods. I don't think Haldane necessarily contributed anything to that discussion, even subconsciously, coincidences happen. I'd never heard of Barbara's thesis and now I'm wanting to know if it is available to read online.

I think the anti-determinist statement can be easily formulated in terms of a question: if you are a determinist, then how do you know determinism is true?

Determinism doesn't make all knowledge impossible, knowing the truth of determinism only requires omniscience. But I don't know of any determinists who, when pressed, consider it more than an assumption held on the basis of faith or belief.

gregnyquist said...

"Then perhaps the idea arose during one of their many 1950s discussion periods. I don't think Haldane necessarily contributed anything to that discussion, even subconsciously, coincidences happen."

Perhaps. A year ago I would've tended to agree with that, but since reading Jennifer Burns' book on Rand, I tend to be more suspicious of claims concerning Rand's "originality." According to Burns, Rand was a great deal more indebted to Isabel Paterson than we have heretofore realized. For example, the "A is A" mantra and Rand's hatred for Kant both have their origin in Paterson. Given Rand's narrow reading, I suspect a great deal more that one finds in Objectivism originally has its source in what Rand learned from Paterson.

This is not to suggest that Rand plagiarized from Paterson. Rand nearly always added her own spin to whatever she borrowed from her teacher. Indeed, Paterson does not appear to have been all that pleased with what Rand did with some the older woman's notions. Paterson, being much better read and far more knowledgeable, understood the wider context of many of these notions, and therefore could better gauge when they were being grossly misapplied and vulgarized. Rand, in her ignorance, had no idea what a mess she was making of Paterson's ideas.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>Perhaps. A year ago I would've tended to agree with that, but since reading Jennifer Burns' book on Rand, I tend to be more suspicious of claims concerning Rand's "originality."

Absolutely. Rand wanted to portray herself as unique. But where do you draw the line on calling it plagiarism? When "borrowing" ideas no longer becomes self-serving but innocent instead? Or is it just unconscious borrowing anyway?

Those questions are irrelevant, I need to know if Rand ever read or even heard of Haldane.

A quick look here http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/misc/read.html does not reveal anything by Haldane.

Cavewight said...

All I'm saying is that proving Rand was unoriginal does not require the charge of plagiarism against her.

That charge actually opens a weak spot in the argument because it demands solid evidence. One cannot say Rand was a plagiarist on the basis that she wanted to appear original, and then toss in some possible similarities between her writings and those of others.

On the other hand, Rand was not a scholar. She was a 'loose cannon,' a fringeist with an extremist streak. She often discussed ideas with others and then, if she liked the result, she reinterpreted these ideas based on her "instincts," which are just a combination of her colorful personality and background experiences.

So I'd rather see any direct similarities between her ideas and those of others as coincidental. The charge of unoriginality can be made to stick other ways. Simply pointing out that ideas similar, or better, identical to hers existed in the past takes Rand down a notch or two. But accusing her of plagiarism is a charge which is not likely to stick and will soon take down with it the charge of unoriginality.

Believe me, I've had plenty of discussions with triumphalists in the Rand community who love that kind of charge because they can easily twist it around and use it to triumphantly proclaim Rand's "brilliant originality" again. Any such base charges which you can't definitively prove only makes Rand seem stronger, even omnipotent and god-like, to them.