Thursday, November 04, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 18

Foundationalism 101. Foundationalism, in the words of philosopher Rob Bass, is “one of a number of views that holds that knowledge has foundations, that there are privileged starting points for knowledge, that justification runs uni-directionally from foundations to superstructure, that nothing is justified unless it is connected in the right way to the foundations…. I consider [foundationalism] deeply confused and, though most foundationalists did not so intend, an invitation to skepticism.”

Rand’s version of foundationalism is particularly virulent, because of her obsession with “validating” knowledge. She even went so far as to suggest, at least implicitly, that the fate of civilization itself rested on “validating” knowledge. As Peikoff, speaking for Rand, put it:

As long as men remain ignorant of their basic mental process, they have no answer to the charge, leveled by mysticism and skepticism alike, that their mental content is some form of revelation or invention detached from reality. This kind of viewpoint can go into remission for a while,…however if it is not burned out of men’s souls completely by an explicit philosophical theory, it becomes the most virulent of cancers; it metastatizes to every branch of philosophy and every department of culture, as is now evident throughout the world. Then the best among men become paralyzed by doubt; while the others turn into mindless hordes that march in any irrationalist era looking for someone to rule them. [OPAR, 88]

Is there any evidence to back up these extraordinary assertions? Peikoff contends that his claims are “now evident throughout the world.” Really? If so, why doesn’t he give any specific examples? How many people, in point of fact, are bothered one jot by their inability to answer the charge that their mental content is “detached from reality”? Has Peikoff or any of his Objectivist cohorts ever thought to put this contention to the test? Where, exactly, are all these people “paralyzed by doubt”? While occasionally one comes across a genuine doubt-engorged skeptic (and, a little more often, people who pretend to be skeptics), the default position for most people inclines more toward a dogmatism of one kind or another, often veering toward intransigence. Skepticism, when one does stumble across it, is more often a pose, a debating trick used to attack rival dogmatisms. It is simply in the nature of most human beings to believe. As Santayana noted, the problem with skepticism is not that it is illogical or inconsistent, but that its difficult to maintain in the face of the natural demands of the psyche. Hunger, thirst, fear, love, vanity all conspire against maintaining an unbreached skepticism (and remaining "paralyzed by doubt"). Therefore, to inveigh against it in the manner of Rand and Peikoff is to tilt against imaginary windmills.

If (per impossible) the Rand/Peikoff paranoia against skepticism were justified, foundationalism would still be wrong. Foundationalism rests on the assumption that knowledge can ultimately be justified based on certain “self-evident” beliefs (e.g., like the Objectivist axioms). But, as I have explained in an earlier post in this series, “nothing is self-evident,” not even the Objectivist axioms.

Some thirty years before Rand formulated her axiom of existence, Santayana had refuted the idea that existence can be taken as a self-evident given.

Assurance of existence expresses animal watchfulness : it posits, within me and round me, hidden and imminent events. The sceptic can easily cast a doubt on the remoter objects of this belief ; and nothing but a certain obduracy and want of agility prevents him from doubting present existence itself. For what could present existence mean, if the imminent events for which animal sense is watching failed altogether, failed at the very roots, so to speak, of the tree of intuition, and left nothing but its branches flowering in vacuo? Expectation is admittedly the most hazardous of beliefs : yet what is watchfulness but expectation? Memory is notoriously full of illusion ; yet what would experience of the present be if the veracity of primary memory were denied, and if I no longer believed that anything had just happened, or that I had ever been in the state from which I suppose myself to have passed into this my present condition?

The point Santayana is make here is subtle but important. The notion of existence only becomes coherent and meaningful within the context of animal sense and memory, neither of which are self-evident or given. You cast doubt on those, and the axiom “existence exists” becomes a meaningless, raving tautology.

Santayana, however, has more arguments against the self-evidence of existence:

Existence…, not being included in any immediate datum, is a fact always open to doubt. I call it a fact notwithstanding, because in talking about the sceptic I am positing his existence. If he has any intuition, however little the theme of that intuition may have to do with any actual world, certainly I who think of his intuition, or he himself thinking of it afterwards, see that this intuition of his must have been an event, and his existence at that time a fact ; but like all facts and events, this one can be known only by an affirmation which posits it, which may be suspended or reversed, and which is subject to error. Hence all this business of intuition may perfectly well be doubted by the sceptic : the existence of his own doubt (however confidently I may assert it for him) is not given to him then : all that is given is some ambiguity or contradiction in images ; and if afterwards he is sure that he has doubted, the sole cogent evidence which that fact can claim lies in the psychological impossibility that, so long as he believes he has doubted, he should not believe it. But he may be wrong in harbouring this belief, and he may rescind it. For all an ultimate scepticism can see, therefore, there may be no facts at all, and perhaps nothing has ever existed.

Scepticism may thus be carried to the point of denying change and memory, and the reality of all facts. Such a sceptical dogma would certainly be false, because this dogma itself would have to be entertained, and that event would be a fact and the sceptic in framing that dogma discourses, vacillates, and lives in the act of contrasting one assertion with another all of which is to exist with a vengeance. Yet this false dogma that nothing exists is tenable intuitively and, while it prevails, is irrefutable….

For the wayward sceptic, who regards it as no truer than any other view, it also has some utility : it accustoms him to discard the dogma which an introspective critic might be tempted to think self-evident, namely, that he himself lives and thinks. That he does so is true ; but to establish that truth he must appeal to animal faith. If he is too proud for that, and simply stares at the datum, the last thing he will see is himself.

Two main points in all of this. The first involves Rand’s contention that everything has an identity. In the sense of self-evidence, of what is given in consciousness, identity holds no warrant of truth and therefore is irrelevant. What has identity is merely some datum. And the experience of a mere datum tells us nothing about the world or existence. It is not until we assume that we live in a world existing in time and space and that we have minds that can think, remember, and conclude that the Objectivist axioms can make any sense at all. Yet none of these assumptions about the world—these foundational assumptions upon which even Rand’s self-evident axioms ultimately rest—are themselves self-evident.

The second point Santayana makes is easily misunderstood. The skeptic, Santayana contends, is false to assert that nothing exists, since the very act of asserting suggests that the skeptic exists. But the skeptic’s position is nevertheless “tenable intuitively” and irrefutable. What does this mean? “Tenable intuitively” means within the context of an ulimate skepticism, wherein no gratuitous (i.e., non self-evident) assumptions are allowed. If you take aways time, change, memory, discourse, thought, logic, intelligence, etc. and you simply try to found knowledge on the most basic experiences, an ultimate skepticism becomes tenable. What in fact is “given” to consciousness? Merely some passing datum, “blank and staring”—in short, the solipsism of the present moment. From such a solipsism, no knowledge, no axioms, no first principles can emerge. Skepticism would become entirely tenable and irrefutable if we attempted to found knowledge on the given.

Neither the world nor our knowledge of it has logical foundations in self-evident or "given" experiences. Those looking for a justification of knowledge in the given are looking in the wrong place. Where, then, should they be looking? That will be the subject of my final post in the “Objectivism and Metaphysics” series.


Cavewight said...

That parallels my own thesis, but I always add that skepticism is actually a healthy phenomenon. Skepticism does not usually, if ever, doubt all knowledge, or else it is self-refuting. Rather, it promotes a healthy self-doubt regarding specific issues.

Objectivism creates imaginary 'demons' to guard "the integrity and efficacy of one's mind" against. How is that different from most religions with their imaginary Satan?

Xtra Laj said...

Good to see you quote Bob Bass. He was a a good and patient influence during my quasi-Randroid phase.

Xtra Laj said...

Does anyone know where Rob Bass is today?