Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 1

Introduction. What is the biggest problem with Ayn Rand? A fairly convincing argument could be made that Rand’s biggest problem was her lack of empirical responsibility. The ease with which Rand tosses out controversial statements about matters of fact is breathtaking to behold. Although little appreciated by her fans, it’s as much part of her MO as her favorite mantra “A is A” or her insistence on “check your premises” (if only she had followed her own advice!). Rand’s frequent ex cathedra assertions set a bad example for her followers. It has led a contempt for facts among many of her orthodox disciples. Those who emphasize such things as factual evidence and peer reviewed scholarship are derided as “concrete bound” pragmatists and/or Kantian subjectivists.

There are Objectivists who sincerely believe that Rand could not possibly be guilty of empirical irresponsibility, because that would go against her epistemological principles, particularly her insistence that “man’s mind” was in contact with reality. But such objections are nothing to the purpose. Rand can talk about connecting concepts to reality as much as she likes; the question is not what she claims to do, but what she actually does. And too often, she proceeds far too carelessly when making claims about matters of fact. Below is a list of thirty-one assertions made by Rand (and two by Peikoff) which are not supported by sufficient evidence:



  1. “Man is a being of self-made soul.”
  2. Human beings have no innate tendencies.
  3. Emotions are automatized value judgments.
  4. “Emotions are not tools of cognition”.
  5. The conscious mind “programs” the subconscious mind.
  6. “If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character.”
  7. A “ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection” yielding a “conceptual identification of your inner states” allows one to discover the sources of one’s emotions.
  8. “An emotion that clashes with your reason is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.”
  9. “Man’s values control his subconscious emotional mechanism that functions like a computer adding up his desires, his experiences, his fulfillments and frustrations.”
  10. “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge.”
  11. “Logic is man’s method of cognition” (Peikoff, ITOE)
  12. “The alternative to reason is some form of mysticism or skepticism.” (Peikoff, OP)
  13. “To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.”
  14. “There has never been a philosophy, a theory or a doctrine that attacked (or “limited”) reason, which did not also preach submission to the power of some authority.”
  15. None of the traditional theories of concepts regards concepts as objective
  16. “Definitions preserve ... the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence.”
  17. “Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.”
  18. “The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process.”
  19. An animal cannot perform a process of abstraction.
  20. “The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.”
  21. “The battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who … are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence.”
  22. “Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.”
  23. The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality.
  24. “[Intellectual appeasement] is an attempt to apologize for his intellectual concerns and to escape from the loneliness of a thinker by professing that his thinking is dedicated to some social-altruistic goal.”
  25. “Tribalism is … a logical consequence of modern philosophy.”
  26. “Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think.”
  27. “Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love.”
  28. “Humility is not a recognition of one’s failings, but a rejection of morality.”
  29. “Man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t.”
  30. “All the evils, abuses, and iniquities, popularly ascribed to businessmen and to capitalism, were not caused by an unregulated economy or by a free market, but by government intervention into the economy.”
  31. “A ‘mixed economy’ is a society in the process of committing suicide.”


Three warnings before we commence. First, many of these statements could be interpreted analytically, so that they become irrefutable. For example, Rand apologists could arbitrarily declare that any human being who is not "a being of self-made soul" is not a man. But while this procedure allows Rand’s statements to evade empirical refutation, they have the disadvantage of rendering those statements into propositions about how Rand uses words, rather than propositions about reality.

All the statements listed above, if they are to be taken seriously as accurate descriptions of reality, must be empirically testable. This consideration leads to my second warning, which has to do with the indistinct terms in which many of Rand’s statements are couched. Despite (or perhaps because) of Rand’s mania for definitions, Rand frequently makes use of vague words and expressions, which leave her ample opportunity to use ambiguity to equivocate to whatever conclusions she wishes. This egregious procedure leads to endless quarrels about Rand’s meaning, with Rand’s apologists constantly complaining that her critics are intentionally distorting her message. Yet all these issues stem from Rand herself. If a philosopher doesn’t wish to be misunderstood, he should stop using vague terms. And nothing could be more to the purpose, if a philosopher wishes to be understood, then carefully framing his contentions in clear, distinct, empirically testable propositions.

One final warning: the primary contention at issue in this series is not whether the thirty-one statements listed above are false (many of them are, but some of them may have an element of truth in them), but that Rand fails to provide sufficient evidence for them. This point is the decisive one, yet it’s entirely lost on far too many Objectivists, as the recent Anthemgate fiasco has illustrated in spades. It’s as if they simply don’t care about empirical responsibility. This is, I suspect, partially a legacy of Rand’s own empirical irresponsibility. It is not always what Rand said, but how she acted, that has proved most influential.


9 comments:

Jim Caton said...

Rand developed a perverse method of dualism by which she ignored everything she did not like and reduced everything she did like to the physical, knowable world.In a universe of infinite complexity, can there really be an objectivist philosophy for finite man to accept? She told her readers to check their premises, but always assumed that her assumptions were correct

Xtra Laj said...

One final warning: the primary contention at issue in this series is not whether the thirty-one statements listed above are false (many of them are, but some of them may have an element of truth in them), but that Rand fails to provide sufficient evidence for them. This point is the decisive one, yet it’s entirely lost on far too many Objectivists, as the recent Anthemgate fiasco has illustrated in spades. It’s as if they simply don’t care about empirical responsibility. This is, I suspect, partially a legacy of Rand’s own empirical irresponsibility. It is not always what Rand said, but how she acted, that has proved most influential.

I think it's also fairly common amongst high IQ individuals who are enamored with their ability to trounce others in arguments and can't distinguish that ability from whether they are right about the facts or not. I remember driving home with one of my Objectivist brothers from a mall. My brother wanted to debate when a movie was showing (he said it was already out and I said it wasn't) and as we were about to go at it, I realized the absurdity of it all and said, "Why are we debating something that can easily be checked? Let's just get home and see what the internet says."

Many people still can't get past the fact that being smarter or even being able to win an argument doesn't make you right. The importance of counterexamples in understanding the limits of logic and of statistics in explaining trends is lost on most individuals. One of the interesting things is that people who like to argue verbally can understand the limits of logic and use them to criticize the arguments of others, but they also are often poorly trained in statistics and over exaggerate the importance of counterexamples to making broad generalizations.

Dragonfly said...

Another one, by Peikoff: "Is the universe then unlimited in size? No. Everything which exists is finite, including the universe.

How does he know?

Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xtra Laj said...

How does he know?

Well, it goes to the heart of the debate about the nature of logic/reasoning. Some people think that by reasoning, we can arrive at incontrovertible facts and immutable truths even with respect to claims that we cannot test. So an Objectivist would respond, were he able to do so politely, that his conception of Reason is different from yours and that Peikoff knows by exercise of his Reason.

Neil Parille said...

“Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.”

Why does Rand say this? Were the dominant thinkers in these ages empiricists, atheists, rational selfish types and pro-laissez faire?

If the Renaissance was so pro-reason then why did Savanorola take control in Florence? He built more of a theocracy than existed in most of the Middle Ages.

Of course "culturally dominated" is so vague that it can mean just about anything.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

Neil said “Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.”

Why does Rand say this?...If the Renaissance was so pro-reason then why did Savanorola take control in Florence? He built more of a theocracy than existed in most of the Middle Ages."


That pretty much illustrates what Greg is saying -- compare her assertions against actual historical facts and all kinds of dissonances appear.

Regarding the 19th century, her attempt to define "Romanticism" took my breath away. It's as if she knows very little of Romanticism in literature, art and music, but nevertheless feels comfortable defining it for the rest of us.

You can find heroic individual struggle in Romanticism, but there was so much more to it, and a lot of it was a reaction against reason and modernity.

- Chris

Damien said...

Greg

Isn't it ironic that someone who championed reason and rationality would do such a poor job of backing up many of her claims?

Behemoth said...

I'm very interested in seeing how this series unfolds.

The extreme foundationalism of Objectivism is one thing that drew me to it back in my callow youth. Everything appeared to be traced back logically to sound premises; the very structure of Peikoff's OPAR lays out reasonable sounding axioms and attempts to derive from this an entire philosophy. Hundreds of pages later he can assert, as though inescapably deduced from unassailable ontological truisms, that the roads should be privatized and Mickey Spillane is a greater artist than William Shakespeare.

As absurd as this appears now, it can have a real hold on teenagers with such limited exposure to real philosophy, like I once was.

How many ways has this paradigm been demolished?

- You have pointed out the problems with such extreme foundationalism in the first place.

- The "Objectivism and 'Metaphysics'" series deconstructed the Objectivist axioms, pointing out their flaws and making clear how invalid they are as a base for a philosophy.

- Various logical flaws in how Objectivism gets from those premises to its conclusions.

- (The principle focus of Nyquist's argument) The fact that Rand's philosophy is so at odds with human nature should give an indication that something is terribly wrong with her justifications for her ideas.

It appears that this series will highlight another huge break in the chain of reasoning from "A is A" to "Laissez-faire capitalism is the only moral system": the huge number of assertions of matters of fact made by Objectivists along the way that are at odds with the evidence.

I can't wait.