Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 7

“An emotion that clashes with your reason is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.” How on earth did Rand know this? Without providing even a jot of evidence, it becomes impossible for a rational person to judge this assertion.

Let us conduct a little thought experiment to see if we can figure out how Rand came to this extraordinary judgment. Let us begin by inquiring as to where Rand could have ever come by such knowledge. I can think of only three possible ways:

  1. Very sophisticated cognitive science experiments
  2. Through introspection
  3. By reading other people's minds

Right from the start we can dismiss the third possibility. No Objectivist, no matter how besotten with Rand, would ever claim she had ESP powers. Could she have conducted cognitive science experiments? Very unlikely. In any case, there is no evidence that she ever did conduct such experiments. (If she did so, such experiments need to be released so that other cognitive scientists can determine if they can reduplicate Rand's findings.) So this leaves us with only one possibility: Rand discovered it through introspection.

From the start, this is deeply problematic. Since consciousness is only "the tip of the iceberg," it would appear unlikely that Rand could have introspected her way to the discovery that clashes between "reason" and "emotion" are caused by "stale" thinking which the mind was forbidden to revise. But let us, in the interest of our thought experiment, waive this objection. After all, Rand was (as her apologists never cease reminding us) such an amazing person that perhaps it is possible that she made this stupendous discover about "stale" thinking through introspection. What we want to know is: How did this introspection work? What did Rand in fact introspect?

There seems only one possible way Rand could have introspected her insight about the relation between "reason," emotion, and "stale thinking." Rand herself must have had an experience involving stale thinking leading to reason-emotion clashes. At some point, Rand must have introspected herself involved in a bout of "stale thinking" (whatever that might be); she must have further introspected her mind engaged in the process of forbidding any revision of this "stale" cogitation; and, finally, she must have introspected the resulting clash between "reason" and emotion. Moreover, since Rand could not have made her grand conclusion from one experience alone (since it might have been a coincidence that "stale thinking" led to the reason-emotion clash in the first instance), we must assume that Rand introspected multiple experiences of this process. That was rather brave of her, don't you think?

Now there is just one other problem we have to address. Since, on the assumptions of our thought experiment, Rand's knowledge is based solely on her own private experiences as perceived via introspection, we cannot be sure that her claim applies to other people. Human beings are notoriously different; and one cannot assume a priori that what is true of one individual is true of every individual. Therefore, the most we can acknowledge in regards to Rand's assertion about stale thinking is that it might have been true about Rand: perhaps her "stale thinking," when once her mind refused to revise it, led to clashes between her reason and her emotion. Whether "stale thinking" leads to such reason-emotion clashes in other people remains an open question.

To be sure, if we allow science to be the guide to this issue, rather than merely suppositions about what Rand might have discovered via introspection, we reach a very different conclusion. According to cognitive science, it is a misnomer to talk about a clash between "reason" and emotion. Since "reason" must always operate with the assistance of emotion (i.e., Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis), it is pointless to gripe about a clash between "reason" and emotion. A clash between "reason" and emotion is really a clash between two emotions, one of which is in league with "reason." Spinoza may have been right all along when he claimed: "An emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another emotion contrary thereto, and with more power for controlling emotion."

14 comments:

caroljane said...

New Rules for Rand Criticism have just been announced by one C. Cathcart via Solopassion.

And you thought you had empirical responsibilities before!

It looks to me like the only people on earth who will now qualify to discuss Rand's ideas are Greg, Daniel, Mr. Cathcart and Leonard Peikoff, and even Peikoff will have to some brushing up.

Order the carriage and alert the surgeon! It looks like epistols at dawn!

Dragonfly said...

A clear example of how Objectivism can cause serious brain damage.

caroljane said...

Dragonfly, even researching objectivists can put you at risk of brain expansion, if not explosion. I have been perusing the archive of Mr Cathcart, and my first reaction I admit was one of petty resentment. What fun can I have at the expense of those who so brilliantly satirize themselves? But as I read on I just lapse into a sort of awe.

His forthcoming book is called "The New Utopia: Perfectionism."

I had a pretty good tag for this post but can't even remember it--what's the use anyway--brain hurts--need to go lie down.

Anonymous said...

Between Rand's setting up of conflict between reason and emotions and Cathcart's apparent equating of perfectionism with utopia, it seems that objectivism is specifically aimed at leading people to a psychological train wreck.

- Chris

Anon69 said...

Greg said:
"Let us begin by inquiring as to where Rand could have ever come by such knowledge. I can think of only three possible ways: 1.Very sophisticated cognitive science experiments 2.Through introspection3.By reading other people's minds"


This is certainly the fairest approach, since it gives Rand the benefit of being taken seriously. As an anonymous commenter, I am not so encumbered by fairness, and can air my suspicion that Rand's statement is not a form of knowledge at all. The possibilities I see are:

1. Rationalistic speculation. Rand may simply be hypothesizing as to how you think, said hypothesis agreeing with her conclusions.
2. Wishful thinking. It would be nice for Rand if emotions that clashed with reason could be revised by thinking.
3. Rhetorical nonsense. Rand had pages to write and a bank account to fill, how else other than judgmental bromides could these needs be met?

It seems only fair to judge Rand and her stale statements in the same unfavorable light, and with the same rationalistic prejudices, in which
she judged everyone else.

Anyway, Happy New Year to the folks here at ARCHN Blog.

Xtra Laj said...

To be sure, if we allow science to be the guide to this issue, rather than merely suppositions about what Rand might have discovered via introspection, we reach a very different conclusion. According to cognitive science, it is a misnomer to talk about a clash between "reason" and emotion. Since "reason" must always operate with the assistance of emotion (i.e., Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis), it is pointless to gripe about a clash between "reason" and emotion. A clash between "reason" and emotion is really a clash between two emotions, one of which is in league with "reason." Spinoza may have been right all along when he claimed: "An emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another emotion contrary thereto, and with more power for controlling emotion."

Rand wasn't the first or only person to frame the conflict this way. For example, Star Trek's Dr Spock also carried on the view that logic should rule, not emotions or intuition, as if they were disparate faculties. I think that to be as fair as possible to Rand, the distinction should be made between consciously accessible reasoning on one hand, and sensible emotions which are presumably tied to things not always consciously accessible or to good memories on the other hand. I don't think that this distinction vindicates her at all given how bad the human mind is at understanding its internal causes, but I think it is somewhere along the lines of where she was really headed.

Anonymous said...

I love Mr C. Cathcart...how can you hate anyone whose website is entitled "The ultimate philosopher"? Sure his pic at Solopassion leads one to assume he's never kissed a girl...but I just love the way he swears on his blog with all the proficiency of a six year old. Talk about delusions of granduer! It can't just be him because they are others like him in objectivism...why oh why does it seem to attract people like this?
Oh well, who am I to judge? If it gets him through the night and he doesn't hurt anyone, let him dream on.
But check out his blog, where he lays into the "mental savages" who are guilty of "epistimological savagery". I think what he means is they don't agree with him. I tell you the one thing these objectivists hate more than us is each other. Objectivism is like Leninism, there are 57 varities and they all think each other are %$^&*((£*.

- Steven Johnston
UK

caroljane said...

Anonymous Steven, you present yourself as a Cathcart fan but allow your ad hominems to detract from our mutual admiration.

What matter if CC has ever kissed a girl? What matter if I as a former girl would never have kissed him, in fact I would rather have chewed barbed wire? It's his unique ideas that matter, and we should wait respectfully for his book. It has a "soft deadline" which I guess means he is waiting for the money to publish it, or for his editor to come out of rehab.

I think we should follow his lead and judge books by their covers. The cover of Utopia is very attractive.

Jeffrey Newholm said...

Come now, you can't have it both ways. If Rand's introspections are invalid because there's too much difference between people, then you can't say Rand was wrong in other regards because people are too similiar (if my memory serves me right, somewhere on this site Dan Gilbert is referenced as a source for the latter assertion).

I still have to read Gilbert, but this whole thing seems a paradox to me. There is a tremendous amount of genetics similarity between humans-more so than penguins and fruit flies. Yet we do seem different. An Objectivist friend of mine attributes just about all personality difference to free will...*sigh*. But in my behavaviorism class in college, I learn all sorts of interesting things about our interaction about conditioning, which could account for a lot of it.

I would say free will too, but I dunno, if this 'Somatic marker theory' is right, combined with the face that emotions inevitably guide reason, what are we left with? Rand's justification for free will (if you can even find it, it's hard to track down) stinks. Peikoff's is okay, but it really doesn't reinforce me to a manner to which I would prefer.

Xtra Laj said...

Come now, you can't have it both ways. If Rand's introspections are invalid because there's too much difference between people, then you can't say Rand was wrong in other regards because people are too similiar (if my memory serves me right, somewhere on this site Dan Gilbert is referenced as a source for the latter assertion).

Why can't you say this? Men and women are similar in many regards, and they are different in many regards. The problem is that when making factual claims about facts that can be tested (which is a huge body of what we call knowledge, and a very valuable part of what we call knowledge) justifying them as incontrovertible TRUTH as opposed to highly plausible CONJECTURE largely on the basis of introspection is unscientific and dangerous. We arrive at many dubious conclusions based on many of our most deeply held beliefs rationalized by introspection, so experiments are important.

After all, could anyone study this phenomenon by introspection?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

And if someone who experienced things like this extended his beliefs about the experiences of others to everyone, would his inferences be valid? Yet, we do this all the time, and its efficacy makes it reliable, especially when we unconsciously test it in social interaction, but it doesn't mean that every detail, or even important details, are as true as we think they may be.

To conclude quickly: there might be details being papered over by people who do not want to investigate and do the hard work. It's one of the reasons why Objectivism is averse to studying mixed strategies in behavior and condemn them as inherently unstable towards the vicious strategies in practice and towards the virtuous strategies with the right philosophy.

gregnyquist said...

"If Rand's introspections are invalid because there's too much difference between people, then you can't say Rand was wrong in other regards because people are too similar."

Well that happens to be your particular spin on it. What is important is where the factual evidence leads us. And what the factual evidence says is that human beings are similar in many respects and different in many respects, and that genetics counts for 50 to 70 percent of those similarities and differences. There is nothing really paradoxical in all this, except for those who have a personal agenda that clashes with hard facts about the human condition. Human beings share both differences and similarities not merely in character traits, but in physical appearance. Except for identical twins, what human being is entirely similar, in appearance to another? Yet human beings have enough similarities in common that they are easily distinguished from other animals.

As for Rand's introspection, even assuming (per implausible) that it was thoroughly objective, it would still only yield truths about Rand that, in the absence of compelling evidence, cannot be assumed to apply to everyone else. Now nearly anyone who knows anything about Rand, whether they admire her philosophy or not, admit that Rand was an unusual person, quite different from most other people. That being the case, it was presumptive of her to conclude that her introspections provide any secure knowledge about other people. Someone passionate about empirical responsibility would wish to base such knowledge claims as Rand makes about human nature on something a great more thorough and detailed than private introspection.

gregnyquist said...

"if this 'Somatic marker theory' is right, combined with the face that emotions inevitably guide reason, what are we left with?"

Inevitably is too strong a word. The manner in which emotions influence "reason" is extremely complex, and cognitive scientists are only beginning to study it. However, it should be borne in mind that, while emotions in may in some instances lead "reason" astray, the human affective system is, at its core, geared toward discovering those facts necessary for promoting well being. Since human beings generally prefer well-being to ill-being, they tend to have emotional bias toward what works. Hence the enormous power and success of technical knowledge. Where emotion tends to mislead "reason" is whenever the short term consequences of a strategy or policy leads to great short term benefits and the cost of dire long term consequences. Since the tendency is to discount the long-term against the short-term, there exists in many people an emotional bias toward the short-term that seriously debauches their thinking.

Now as to what we are left with from all this, it's quite simple: we are left with a greater understanding of ourselves, which may allow some of us (of course there's no guarantee) to develop strategies by which we can overcome or at least mitigate the bad effects that emotion has on thinking while encouraging its good effects. But the very worst thing a person can do is to ignore such effects altogether, because that's precisely what makes emotional biases so dangerous. The person most likely to be affected for the worse is he who denies them altogether, who is under the illusion of that he is entirely "objective" and free of emotional biases. Not until the individual recognizes how he himself may be affected by largely unconscious emotional biases can he begin to take steps to overcome them.

Jeffrey Newholm said...

"The person most likely to be affected for the worse is he who denies them altogether, who is under the illusion of that he is entirely "objective" and free of emotional biases. Not until the individual recognizes how he himself may be affected by largely unconscious emotional biases can he begin to take steps to overcome them."

Very well put.

Mr. A said...

Another problem here: "Moreover, since Rand could not have made her grand conclusion from one experience alone (since it might have been a coincidence that "stale thinking" led to the reason-emotion clash in the first instance), we must assume that Rand introspected multiple experiences of this process. That was rather brave of her, don't you think?"

But there's no evidence that Rand bothered to go through all that trouble. Perhaps she could have benefitted by looking into psychological research, but given her deep-seated suspicion of the entire field (see her essay "The Simulus and the Response") this wasn't about to happen. Not to mention the best psychologist in her inner circle was kicked out for having "psychological problems". Right.

Now to some extent we can give Rand a break because psychology has come a long ways since her time, but this still doesn't excuse her unwillingness to examine what research was available, and especially doesn't excuse her followers who won't face the music themselves. Jeffrey is right: Objectivists would learn a lot by examining Behaviorism rather that just relying on Rand's straw man argument against Skinner.