Monday, November 29, 2010

ARCHNblog Quote of the Day

Michael Prescott: "[Neil Parille's summary] has much in common with the work of Kremlinologists back in the days of the USSR."

Greg Nyquist: True. Fortunately, there is one important difference. Neither Peikoff nor ARI have nukes. If they did, well, we can only imagine the consequences. "So what brought down American civilization? How was this mighty edifice laid to waste?" "Oh, that's easy: Leonard Peikoff got the bomb."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The McCaskey Objectischism Part 2

Neil Parille details the labyrinthine politics of the latest Objectischism, so you don't have to:

Two months ago I gave the lowdown on the latest schism in Objectivism. I suggested that the schism had not yet reached the level of the David Kelley split in the 1980s. In two short months we’ve reached Kelley levels and may be heading for a schism of Brandenesque proportions.



By way of background, it should be noted that Leonard Peikoff is not on the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and does not appear to have the legal authority to veto its decisions. Rather, as the heir of Rand’s estate, the owner of her copyrights and the owner of her papers, a decision by Peikoff to separate from the ARI would probably hamper its day to day operations if not require its dissolution.

On October 24, Diana Hsieh published her evaluation of the McCaskey schism. Hsieh, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is the most prominent Objectivist blogger and podcaster. She is an interesting character. A long-time Objectivist, she was for ten years a supporter of David Kelley’s the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Center). She was no admirer of Leonard Peikoff, criticizing his magnum opus Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) and alleging that Peikoff lied in claiming Rand designated him her “intellectual heir.”

In 2004, however, Hsieh had a conversion experience to orthodox Objectivism in which all her previous criticism of the ARI and Leonard Peikoff suddenly became “inoperative.” In order to make up for lost time, she launched numerous attacks on the “false friends” of Objectivism. These included not just the usual suspects such as David Kelley and the Brandens, but her old friend Chris Sciabarra. Sciabarra is particularly loathed in ARI circles for his work Ayn Rand the Russian Radical, a book which puts Rand in historical context. In 2006, Hsieh, using private emails from Sciabarra without his permission, wrote a nasty hit piece. She repudiated her previous work. Leonard Peikoff now became a god in Hsieh’s eyes, even endorsing his 2006 fatwa on the moral obligation to vote for the Democratic Party.

Hsieh’s attempt to become Objectivism’s avenging angel worked, at least for a time. In a 2009 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said he respected her work. However, in June 2010 she disagreed (as did many Objectivists) with Peikoff’s contention that Moslems did not have the right to build and Islamic Community Center (which contained a mosque) near “ground zero” in New York City. (This was a dangerous position to take because Peikoff, as with the 2006 voting fatwa, had equated his position with Objectivism as such.) Nonetheless, she tried to be as respectful as possible to Peikoff, urging Objectivists not pester the Grand Old Man at the summer Objectivist Conference. Curiously, Hsieh reported, in September, that her proposal for a lecture at the 2011 ARI-sponsored Objectivist Conference (OCON) was rejected.

In preparation for her October 24 piece on the McCaskey schism, Hsieh wrote a couple letters to Peikoff asking for clarification concerning his now notorious email which, she said, “looked very bad on its face.” Peikoff did not respond or acknowledge the emails. She also spoke to McCaskey and ARI president Yaron Brook to get their side of the story. The most interesting bit of information in Hsieh’s piece was a letter that David Harriman sent to Hsieh’s husband, Paul (a medical doctor).

Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM


From: DAVID HARRIMAN


To: Paul Hsieh


Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey's criticisms of your book?

Dear Paul:

I don't think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.

Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.

I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.

McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by "free fall" (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of "inertia," "acceleration," and "momentum." In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?

In short, I ask you which is more believable -- that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between "impetus" and "momentum," or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?


A favorite pastime among academics today is to find "feet of clay" in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.

Sincerely,
David

Of course contempt for academics and the claim that all non-Objectivists are “Kantians” is vintage Peikoff. And who needs expertise in the history of science to evaluate a book on the history of science when a little “thinking in essentials” will do the trick?

Hsieh’s piece generated lots of comments. The most interesting was from physicist Travis Norsen, who revealed that he had been critical of the Harriman book for quite some time, resulting in a “cooling” of his relationship with the ARI:

Now, ironically, during this same period, a dear friend convinced me to consider trying one last time to submit an OCON course proposal; in particular I was assured that, this time, such a proposal would receive a fair hearing. So, despite doubting that a proposal by me could possibly be accepted, I did end up submitting something. To my pleasure and surprise, it was accepted, and so I was slated to teach a course at the summer 2007 conference (in Colorado). But then, a couple months later (in December of 2006), I was informed by ARI that they were withdrawing the invitation for me to speak, based on the “views on induction generally and on Dr. Peikoff’s lectures more specifically” that I had posted here.

Norsen also reported that he was told that the ARI had need for only one lecturer on physics, and that was David Harriman.

Hsieh didn’t reach many conclusions in her piece, claiming that there wasn’t enough information available to determine just what Peikoff was up to in his “moral condemnation” of McCaskey. Trying not to get into too much trouble, she urged everyone to be understanding of Peikoff and acknowledge his contributions to Objectivism. Finally, the Hsiehs produced a lengthy, deeply confused no-comment post which alternates between plaintive mea culpa and self-justifying blather "Closing Thoughts On ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey", and from which no clear statement on anything at all can be extracted. It really reads like the gyrations of two apparatchiks trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

If Hsieh’s failure to support Peikoff 100% was surprising, things got even more surprising a couple weeks later when, on October 29, Craig Biddle attacked Peikoff for his “nonobjective” and “unjust” attack on McCaskey. Biddle publishes The Objective Standard (TOS), an Objectivist magazine that publishes only orthodox Objectivists and has close ties to the ARI. McCaskey is on the masthead along with ARI president Yaron Brook. TOS had published excerpts from Harriman’s book. You’d think Biddle would be the last person to turn on Peikoff. Just a few weeks previous Biddle published a fawning review of James Valliant’s now debunked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, even though it is out of print and orthodox Objectivists such as Hsieh have long stopped mentioning it. In his 2002 book Loving Life he called OPAR “one of the most important books ever written.”

Biddle removed Brook from the masthead of TOS, duly noting that he respects Brooks and does not want to sever ties with ARI writers. Lot of good that did him, because the next day he posted on Face Book that the ARI had cancelled his speaking engagements at several universities.

By now people were asking lots of questions, in particular students at the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), a graduate program run by the ARI. Perhaps fearing that a decision by Peikoff to take his marbles and go home would result in OAC becoming another Founders College, they demanded a conference call with the ARI, which apparently took place in early November. The call was confidential.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Peikoff returned from on high on November 5 to settle scores. First he denounced McCaskey. Lest there are any doubts, he said was morally condemning McCaskey. (This had been disputed by certain Objectivists, apparently forgetting that virtually every condemnation is moral in Peikoff’s eyes).


Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual. Had I held a more positive estimate, I would have attempted first of all not to demand his resignation, but to discuss the book with him, understand his viewpoint, and see if together we could resolve and/or delimit his problems with it. But given my opinion of him, intellectual discussion was impossible to me.

Next, he reminded people that as the one who allegedly best understands Objectivism, he is entitled to trump any decision of the ARI, notwithstanding the fact that he is not even on its Board of Directors.


Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions and where the line is to be drawn. An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory, the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s), if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me. (I have retired from books, classes, and official position, but not from perception and evaluation.)

Next, he pointed out that he is on terms of “personal enmity” with “a few” Board members and doesn’t speak to them. Since there are eight Board members, Peikoff apparently isn’t on speaking terms with at least 40% of the Board.


Finally, in case anyone was wondering against whom Peikoff was directing his invective, he closed with “if . . . my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.”

By now things had reached critical mass. With a “sizeable faction” of ARI supporters having questions about what little amount of intellectual freedom remains in orthodox Objectivism and a possible fall-off of contributions to the ARI, Yaron Brook decided to speak. The upshot of Brook’s press release is that Peikoff threatened to walk away from the ARI and the Board caved.

The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations

I won’t go into the details of Brook’s statement, which was brilliantly dissected by one “Saul” on Diana Hsieh’s blog. Of note, however, is that Brook does not say whether he considers Peikoff’s criticisms of McCaskey’s person (an obnoxious braggart and ignoramus) appropriate in light of McCaskey’s years of devotion to the ARI. Most importantly, we are never told why McCaskey had a “conflict of interest” as a Board member because he is unable to support the ARI-sponsored The Logical Leap. Is McCaskey obligated to support a work that is, at most, an extension of Objectivism? I don’t get the impression that McCaskey was out to publicly “trash” The Logical Leap. Rather it looks like he intended on keeping his criticism private.

We now have more information about this schism, although there is a great deal we don’t know. Most importantly we know that Peikoff’s denunciation of McCaskey is the culmination of his attempt to make David Harriman the official Objectivist expert on physics and science, notwithstanding his eccentric view on relativity theory and some other matters. In my initial piece I raised the suspicion that Peikoff’s anger might have something to do with the Archives granting access to Jennifer Burns for her critical biography of Rand. I thought that ARI supporters might be angry over Burns’ revelation that the ARI, apparently at Peikoff’s direction or at least consent, has rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. That doesn’t appear to have been a factor.

The McCaskey schism is the logical culmination of Peikovianism. When Peikoff excommunicated David Kelley he implicitly put his interpretation of Objectivism on par with Rand’s stated positions. This was made explicit in the 2006 Fatwa and the New York City Mosque podcast. Now with the McCaskey auto-da-fe Peikoff has made his extension of Objectivism into an area on which Rand wrote nothing as much a part of Objectivism as anything that Rand wrote. If the DIM Hypothesis ever appears will Objectivists be free to express the mildest disagreements?

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.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Intellectual Sources of the Latest Objectischism 2

According to Rand, the Objectivist Ethics "holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value." Now it seems likely that this principle was devised primarily (and perhaps solely) to convince herself and her followers that it is never in an individual's rational self-interest to violate the rights of another person. Rand never considered the implications of this principle in other venues, such as a voluntary organization such as ARI.

In the latest Objectischism, there exists a conflict of interests between Leonard Peikoff and John McCaskey. The fact that such a conflict exists at all indicates that one (if not both) of the parties are "irrational." Indeed, the fact that conflicts exist within orthodox Objectivism -- conflicts so intense and irresolvable that they can only be ended by one of the parties exiting the scene -- suggests something profoundly amiss. If individuals passionately devoted to Rand's philosophy of "reason" and "reality" are incapable of resolving their differences "rationally," what hope is there for the rest of us?

The philosophical problem at the base of the issue stems from Rand's conception of "reason." I have suggested in previous posts on this blog that "reason" is a mythical faculty. None of its champions have ever provided empirical evidence demonstrating it's reported efficacy. It's merely a term used by those seeking to justify contentions based on insufficient evidence. Human discourse is most efficacious when it is subjected to rigorous testing, whether scientific or practical. The best justification for an idea or theory is that it works in empirical reality. Seeking justification for a theory in "reason" is merely an invitation for rationalization, which is the bane of rational inquiry.


Now if Objectivist "reason" were everything it is cracked up to be, we would expect to find evidence of this in the lives of Objectivists. Nothing could be more to the purpose along these lines then an empirical examination of how reason works to solve disputes within an organization run by leading Objectivists. Rand believed in the existence of an objective reality that could be understood by "reason." Rand insisted that, despite man's fallibility, anyone using "reason" could arrive at true and even "certain" conclusions. As a consequence of this, rational men (i.e., men using "reason"), assuming they had access to the same information, would always arrive at the same conclusions. This, incidentally, provides a rationale for why there are no conflicts among "rational" men. Since reason inevitably leads to the same conclusion, rational men will always find themselves on the same page. Differences of opinion can be settled by "reasoned" discussion.

So how does this theory work in practice? Obviously, if ARI is our test case, it doesn't work at all. Peikoff admits, for example, that "Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions [on the ARI board] and where the line is to be drawn." Someone has to decide? Shouldn't "reason" decide? Since reality is objective and "reason" the only "valid" means of knowing reality, what need is there for an individual to decide these things at all? Shouldn't a committee of rational men do just as well? But no, of course not; even Leonard Peikoff understands that a committee of rational men would not do at all. Peikoff is right to insist that someone must decide, that hierarchical leadership is necessary even among Objectivists. This suggests that "reason" is not all it's cracked up to be. Why should this be so? What is wrong with the Objectivist conception of "reason"?

(1) Differing "context" of knowledge among men. Within the Objectivist ideology, the idea of context is used as a kind of conceptual escape hatch to explain, for instance, why a moral absolute may not apply in all instances (because moral absolutes are "contextual") or why an individual may be certain yet wrong (because certainty is "contextual"). It could also be used to explain why hierarchical leadership based on "authority" is necessary even for Objectivists. Since individuals have differing "contexts of knowledge," they will not always arrive at the same conclusions. While their conclusions, if backed by all the evidence within the "context of their knowledge," will be "certain," they won't be identical. Those with a wider context of knowledge will (presumably) achieve a higher level of "certainty." They will know more and will hence be in a better position to make rational decisions.

So far so good. But if this line of reasoning is accepted, it creates problems in other areas of Objectivism. If differing contexts of knowledge cause rational men to arrive at different conclusions, then Rand's contention about "no conflicts of interest" among rational men must be dropped. Here is yet another example of Rand and her disciples failing to consider all the implications of a specific doctrine. Since a rational man's interests must, according to Rand, be discovered through "reason," and since knowledge is contextual, the conclusions that a man reaches concerning the interests of himself and others (including organizations like ARI) will depend on the context of his knowledge. Different contexts lead to different assessments of interests, even among rational men; and differing assessment of interests will inevitably lead to conflicts.

2. Interests are fundamentally non-rational. Rand's conviction that there exists such a thing as "rational" interests, discoverable by "reason," is incoherent and poorly thought out. Neither Rand nor any of her disciples have ever provided us with a detailed description of how to distinguish a rational interest from a non-rational interest. If we go by Objectivist writings, a "rational" interest is merely any interest that Rand and her disciples approve of, while a non-rational (or "irrational") interest is an any interest they disapprove of.

The problem here is insoluable on Objectivist premises. That's because interests are fundamentally emotive in nature. While emotions are not the sole arbiters of an individual's interest, they do provide data essential for developing an intelligent appreciation of what these interests might be. An interest must be rooted in some natural need or desire if it is to be an interest at all. An interest that satisfied no need or desire, but was entirely independent of the affective system, would be an imposition rather than an interest. To pursue interests that satisfy no natural need is to act contrary to nature.

Now it just so happens that human nature is not homogeneous. The natural needs of men differ from one individual to another. Worse, some needs (such as the need for status) cannot be harmonized within a social system (i.e., Paul's need for status cannot be completely harmonized with Peter's need for status). Conflict of interests are therefore a built-in feature of the human condition. To deny this is to live in fairy-tale world.

What perhaps shocked rank-and-file Objectivists more than anything else in Peikoff's now infamous email is where he wrote, "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism." Objectivists are not supposed to be concerned with status. It is a product of that horror or horrors, social metaphysics. It reeks of authoritarianism and the appeal to faith. Yet status can no more be exorcised from man's "emotional mechanism" than sex or hunger can. To deny or evade it merely serves to make it more poisonous, since what is repressed cannot be forthrightly combatted or rechanneled.

Rivalries of status and pre-eminence do exist within the Objectivist community. Of course, no self-respecting Objectivist could ever admit this; so the fact itself must be repressed, which in turn leads to rationalization on an immense scale. When intellectuals rationalize their desires, a duality of meaning develops within their thought. Everything they think or say has a "formal" and a "real" meaning. The "formal" meaning is the literal, conscious meaning; it's the rationalized meaning, meant to persuade and deceive both the rationalizer and his audience. The "real" meaning accords with the unconscious motives that are prompting the whole business.

So if an aspiring Objectivist came out and said, "I'm supporting Peikoff because I think it will further my career as an Objectivist spokeman," he would ruin any chances of achieving the object of his ambition. Hence the need of concealing one's real motives. The trouble here is that human beings are pretty good at detecting this sort of insincerity. It's not enough to conceal one's motives; one must also believe in the "truth" of one's deception. In short, one must accept one's own lies and become, if you will, a sincere hypocrit.

Once this dynamic is in full play, any claims about "reason," logic, or reasoned discourse must be treated with the utmost suspicion. When people are forced to repress and conceal their true motives under a veneer of logic, rationalization becomes the order of the day. Hence the fanaticism and irrationality one detects in so many orthodox Objectivists. Hence their inability to engage in reasoned discourse with those who disagree with them. Hence their inability to even understand, let alone refute, their critics. Hence their inability to use "reason" to resolve differences among themselves.

3. Rand provided no "technology" for "reason." In Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand," we run across the following observation: "So here in Ayn Rand’s work is an ethical philosophy with a great vision of human possibilities, but no technology to help people get there..." This absence of a "technology" doesn't only afflict Rand's ethics; it is a problem with Rand's epistemology, particularly in relation to her much ballyhooed "reason." Rand actually never bothers to explain, in a clear, detailed, empirically testable fashion, how one goes about using "reason." About as detailed as she gets is the following:

In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective.


I will provide a more detailed explanation of what is wrong with this when I get around to doing my "Objectivism and Epistemology" series. For our present purposes, I will merely note that Rand's inclusion of concept-formation in her conception of reason is deeply problematical. Concept-formation is an extremely complex process involving unconscious process that cannot be directed by the conscious mind. For this reason, no articulable, formalized technique can ever be devised to control or direct, let alone even describe, the process of concept-formation. But without an articulable, formalized technique, reason cannot be "followed." Unconscious processes can at best be "evoked" by the conscious mind; they can't be controlled or directed, since the individual cannot control what is beyond the range of sentience. Rand's "reason" is therefore mythical. No such technique exists or is possible. What is possible, instead, is rational and empirical criticism. While we cannot direct the process by which conclusions are formed, we can test such conclusions, once they become availabe to the conscious mind. Empirical testing and rational criticism therefore constitute the chief ingredients of rationality, not concept-formation or "reason."

"Reason" being mythical, any attempt to resolve differences among men (whether they are "rational" or not) via "reason" must come to grief. Hence the necessity within the Objectivist movement of an authority based on "status" who can settle the conflicts which, in the absence of an objective arbiter, will inevitably arise among Objectivists. If Leonard Peikoff did not exist, Objectivists would be forced to invent him. Without a central authority, Objectivism would splinter into hundreds of fragments, each claiming to follow "reason" and crying anathema on all other fragments. The Objectivist movement, precisely because it follows "reason," which is entirely mythical faculty, must be authoritarian at its core. It cannot exist on any other basis.

Friday, November 19, 2010

David Harriman's Blurb-O-Mat

David Harriman has started a blog around his Objectischism-inspiring book "The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics", which is already promising to be as hapless as the book itself. While the posts so far are basically just blurb, two are of interest. Firstly, the latest one where he claims to "face his critics" (no names mentioned). Harriman actually does nothing of the sort, the post being primarily concerned about how awesome he is at "essentializing" compared to the "contemporary academics"(no names mentioned), and with signaling just how deeply individualistic and unconventional he is by disregarding what other historians might say. Commenters thus far agree that this awesomeness is indeed awesome. If this is "facing his critics" I'd hate to see him "facing his fans".

Secondly, there's a post about the "positive reviews" the book allegedly has had thus far. Harriman claims that there have been "more than a dozen", although he fails to mention actual sources for all but two: a very brief, rather lukewarm online-only review from the National Science Teachers Association, and more importantly, a rave review from the respected Physics Today journal by math professor at Ohio State U, Ulrich Gerlach (no link available, sorry). Gerlach describes Harriman's book as "brilliant" and "destined to be the fountainhead of future studies in the philosophy of science".

Wait a minute...did he just say "fountainhead"? Yep, you guessed it. So we google "Ulrich Gerlach Ayn Rand" and here's what we get: among other things, an example of what appears to be his work from 2005, which sources The Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in footnotes, and comments on an Amazon review of Tara Smith's Objectivist work "Viable Values" which read like standard Ayn Rand Institute catechism. So it's pretty obvious Gerlach is in fact a True Believer of the same stripe as Harriman, which in turn makes the Physics Today review basically worthless.

Funnily enough, Harriman forgot to mention this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Intellectual Sources of Latest Objectischism 1

Since the McCaskey schism is (as Daniel Barnes has noted) largely arose from "philosophical" issues, it might be illuminating to go over the sources of this particular intellectual imbroglio. There are, as far I can ascertain, three main sources:

(1) The Objectivist theory of history
(2) The Objectivist concept of "reason"
(3) The Problem of Induction

Since Daniel has already covered No. 3, that leaves us with the first two. In this post I'll cover No. 1.

The Objectivist theory of history. Since the past cannot be changed, factual claims about the motive forces in history cannot be tested experimentally. Without experimental tests, history becomes a breeding ground for dubious theories. Individuals lacking detailed knowledge of history and insight into human nature can make assertions which, however implausible they may appear to the wise, cannot be decisively refuted. One such theory is the Objectivist "philosophy of history," which claims that the course of history is largely governed by broad philosophical abstractions devised by mankind's "greatest" philosophers (namely, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand). Rand's theory serves two main purposes: (1) to explain why Rand's philosophy (or the equivalent thereof) did not prevail in the past; and (2) to explain why Rand's philosophy will likely prevail (i.e., dominate the culture) in the future. Explaining these things is important for a palpably simple reason. The very fact that Rand's political and ethical preferences have not fared well in the past would seem to constitute evidence that they are not likely to fare well in the future. Throughout human history, selfishness has usually been regarded with suspicion, whereas sacrificing oneself for the good of the community has always received the highest encomiums. Nor have we ever seen, on any significant scale, Rand's "laissez-faire" capitalism. Given these uninspiring facts, what reason could a sane person possibly entertain for believing that "rational" selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism will take hold at any time in the future?


Rand tries to solve these problems by asserting that the failure of self-interest and laissez-faire ultimately stems from a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty," itself a product of the failure of modern philosphers to solve the "problem of universals." Now there happens to be virtually no credible reasons (or evidence) for believing any of this to be true. Historically, the problem of universals was a metaphysical rather than an epistemological problem, and most modern (i.e., post-scholastic) philosophers paid little attention to it. Nor is it quite accurate to claim that modern philosophers were engaged in a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty." A great deal of fudging, distortion, and outright malicious interpretation were required to make Hume, Hegel, and Kant the great villians of the Objectivist narrative. While such intellectual malfeasance would hardly stir the conscience of the typical diehard orthodox Objectivist (who, after all, was largely ignorant of philosophy and whose concern about matters of fact and fair play had long ago been debauched by his commitment to to the Randian creed), with men of greater knowledge and integrity, things would fare otherwise. The Objectivist caricatures of great philosophers constituted a major intellectual embarrassment which made Rand's philosophy a tough sell, even among those scholars who might otherwise have been inclined to give it a place at the academic trough. Typical, in this regard, is Gary Merrill's take on Rand:


These sorts of things [i.e., examples of Rand's shoddy scholarship] would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell [about "kinda" of knowing the concept of number], for example. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down.

So what is it that differentiates the writing of Rand from those of classic academics and professional philosophers? It is simply that her work has every appearance of an extended and multi-faceted straw man argument that fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship. It has all the marks of what in science would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.



Now fortunately for orthodox Objectivism, academic philosophers are so busy arguing among themselves that it is still possible for the stray Objectivist to scatch and claw his way into a professorship. But matters fare otherwise within the hard sciences, where experiment and exacting scholarship still hold sway and a consensus based on tried and true methods is still possible. All sorts of eccentricities may be ignored or even tolerated within philosophy and the "philosophy of history," but in physics more exacting standards are applied. Objectivism's shoddy scholarship -- its egregious tendency to make extravagently controversial claims based either on bad evidence or no evidence -- is bound to attract unfavorable attention.

Now one of the principle doctrines of the Objectivist theory of history is that the influence of Kant, as long as it remains unchallenged, must eventually eat away like a cancer nearly everything within the culture, including science. Rand and her disciples, afflicted with the sort of monomaniacal confirmation bias that tends to govern most ideologues, were ever vigilant for even the most negligible "evidence" of Kant's irrationality nibbling away at the host organism. Because 20th century physics didn't exactly line up into neat and tidy categories suggested by common sense and the Objectivist axioms, Rand viewed it with suspicion. Many of the leading theories and concepts in physics were couched in terms calculated to arouse Rand's ire, such as Theory of Relativity, Uncertainty Principle, observer effect, wave-particle duality, etc. Such terms suggested a discipline awash in the horrors of Kantian subjectivity. An exorcism, involving rigorous Objectivist criticism, seemed called for. But there were no Objectivists up to the task, none having the requisite "expertise" in physics -- none, that is, until David Harriman arrived on the scene. Harriman was everything Peikoff, now occupying the Objectivist throne, could have wished for. Harriman (allegedly) had worked as a physicist for the U.S. Department of Defense and taught philosophy at California State University San Bernadino. He was a clever and amusing lecturer. To people ignorant of physics, he seemed to know what he was talking about. And even better, he eagerly embraced Rand's and Peikoff's suspicions about physics and began formulating specious rationalizations for them. It was a match made in Objectivist heaven. It would now be possible to devise an Objectivist philosophy of science to do battle for truth, justice, and the Randian way. The Kantian demons could at last be excorcised from physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics could be made safe for an Objectivist metaphysics, and the Objectivist salvation of the world could proceed without concerns about a rearguard action from academic physicists. But alas, it was not to be. There were vipers in the very bosom of ARI uttering heretical murmurs concerning Harriman's shoddy scholarship. Someone would have to go; and that someone wasn't going to be either Harriman or Peikoff.

At the core of Objectivism there has long been a tension between Rand's pretense to rationality and reason and some of her fundamental beliefs, which are neither rational nor in line with the best scientific evidence. Among the Objectivist faithful, there exists a genuine admiration of hard science, which is regarded as an exemplar of "reason," that holy of holies within the Objectivist ideology. There even existed a few (though not many) Objectivists qualified to pronounce on experimental science, including a member of the ARI board, Dr. John P. McCaskey of Stanford's History and Philosophy of Science Program. McCaskey could not help noticing errors in Harriman's scholarship, and, perhaps fearing the scorn which such errors would evoke among his academic colleagues, he tried to bring them to Harriman's attention. But Harriman, secure in his position with Peikoff, would have none of it. McCaskey's minor grumblings were exaggerated, in the usual molehills-into-mountains Objectivist fashion, into one of the great intellectual crimes of the century.

Now all of this could have been contained within the discreet boundaries of a minor scandal were it not for one extraordinary oversight. As part of McCaskey's agreement to resign, Peikoff consented to release the email containing his infamous "someone has to go" ultimatum to ARI's legal department. Nothing demonstrates more vividly the gargantuan size of Peikoff's hubris then the carelessness by which this incendiary missive was allowed to see the light of public scrutiny. In releasing the email, Peikoff placed ARI and it's band of loyal followers in a terribly awkward position. What makes the email particularly hard to swallow for the Objectivist faithful was its blatantly irrational appeal to naked authority and its contempt for rational discourse. Peikoff expected to be obeyed unconditionally because of his "status" within the Objectivist community. "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism," he complained in the email. "If only we could forget who Peikoff is!" many an Objectivist undoubtedly sighed on reading that email. Peikoff had become an embarrassment difficult to ignore or evade, like the eccentric relative who comes bolting out of the attic at the most inopportune moments.

Yet although most of the consternation arising among the rank and file is over Peikoff's email, the real problem is more intractable. It is a deep rooted conflict between Objectivism and science. Objectivists have for years been sedulously evading this conflict with one ideological makeshift or another. But as a consequence of the Objectivist mania for infiltrating academia, at some point open conflict was inevitable.

In 1982, Leonard Peikoff, responding to a question about what it would take for Objectivism win, responded: "The teaching of courses on Objectivism at Harvard and Yale. After that, it is just a matter of more courses in other places. But that is the end of the battle. From that point on, it's a process of enjoying the triumph and seeing it take hold in art and in politics." With Rand's death, placing Objectivists in academic positions became Objectivism's grand strategy for taking over the culture. But the problem is that once an Objectivist manages (often against great odds) to secure an academic position, he finds himself beholden to two masters. On the one hand, he must remain ideological pure in the eyes of the Objectivist cognescenti over at ARI, and on the other, he must maintain a facade of professorial respectability among his colleagues within academia. In disciplines where no strict consensus holds sway, this may not be so very difficult; but in the hard sciences, challenging the consensus on the basis of poor or non-existent scholarship is rarely tolerated.

We see this dynamic in full play in Alan Gotthelf's five star review of Harriman's The Logical Leap over at amazon.com. "Though I can't speak personally for the full accuracy of the historical accounts," Gotthelf writes, "they are essentialized with great skill, and lucidly presented." Note how Gotthelf hedges his bets: he refuses to endorse the "full accuracy" of Harriman's historical "evidence." Gotthelf finds himself in the unenviable position of being beholden to two masters with conflicting agendas. How can he serve both without alienating one or the other?

As long as Objectivism continues to hold to its bosom positions about human nature and history that run foul of experimental psychology and historical scholarship, these rifts will continue to widen. There's no escaping it. Yet there is another problem that may prove, in the end, even more intractable. Objectivism has no way of rationally settling conflicts that arise among its denizens. This subject I will explore in my next post.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Collision Course

It is a great shame that I have had little or no time to write about Objectivism over the past few months, as the ongoing McCaskey Objectischism represents a singularly critical moment in the movement's history - one that has been easily foreseeable for a long time now, and one that is, I think, potentially far more damaging in the long run than the Reisman, Kelley, and even Branden schisms.

Why do I think this? After all, aren't ridiculously overwrought schisms a weirdly normal feature of life in the Objectivist microverse? And why would McCaskey , a relatively low-key figure in the movement compared to the aforementioned, be the flashpoint for a more damaging contretemps than say David Kelley, or even the Brandens?

The reason is simple. With the Brandens, the break was obviously highly personal; a adulterous affair between aging guru and young acolyte that was bound to turn ugly. With Kelley and Reisman it was more political; these breaks were really about power struggles within the Ayn Rand Institute that in the classic Objectivist fashion were merely post-rationalised into pseudo-philosophical disagreements. The McCaskey schism has some features of the latter two in that it ostensibly revolves around the ARI's - and Leonard Peikoff's - penchant for intellectual authoritarianism. But the McCaskey affair is different because this time the source of the conflict really is a philosophical problem, instead of just a political or personal conflict in drag.

The problem in question is the well-known problem of induction. Perhaps the most important problem in epistemology, it is also one that, in her own words, Rand never even began to think about. Thus for once Rand's legion of Little Sir Echoes have little or nothing to dutifully recite; for once, they have to formulate an original response to an important problem working by implication from Rand's work, rather than resorting to the usual pull quotes from Galt's speech. Even worse, the problem of induction is a clearcut logical one, and is thus subject to a set of objective rules, rather like mathematics. This makes it more difficult for Objectivism's usual verbalist legerdemain to function, though of course true believers would - and do - happily accept 1+1=5 if Rand says so in a suitably inspirational way. Further, it is problem that goes to the heart of epistemological certainty, a much touted brand differentiator for Rand's philosophy. It is after all the problem made famous by Objectivist hate-figure David Hume, and which inspired Rand's arch-enemy, Immanuel Kant. Surely Rand's philosophy must contain some kind of riposte. Finally, it has been a massively debated problem for the last 100 years, with almost every conceivable angle covered ad nauseum. If Objectivism is such a strikingly original philosophy in every respect, as its followers insist, then we could reasonably expect a strikingly original answer here.

Sadly, original thinking is basically antithetical to Objectivist culture. This, along with the poverty of Rand's own style of argument meant that Objectivism's long promised answer to this famous philosophical problem would inevitably be an intellectual embarrassment. The signs were obvious for years, as Objectivists talked up Leonard Peikoff's supposedly revolutionary solution whilst Peikoff himself refused to actually publish it, opting instead to bury it somewhere in vast, outrageously expensive audio tape lectures only available from the Ayn Rand Institute. After a while, there was the threatened book; but that too never emerged. Finally Peikoff's solution - and it almost certainly will be Peikoff's handiwork at root - has timidly appeared under the auspices of Peikoff's colleague, David Harriman, in the new The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics.

Yet clearly even after all this time, and his convoluted path to publishing, the only thing that's clear is that Peikoff has almost no confidence in his own solution; The McCaskey Objectischism is all about his hysterical overreaction to a mild-mannered, basically favourable critique on Amazon by long time ARI board member and fundraiser John McCaskey, with Peikoff simply pulling rank to shut down any and all such criticism. Since then it has spiralled out of control, resulting in defections from previously ARI-loyal publications such as the Objective Standard as well as numerous rank and file supporters. Neil Parille will detail when we post his latest update here at the ARCHNblog in a day or two. We here at the ARCHNblog will also review the book at some point, although at first glance it does look really, really terrible - a compendium of the most tired, old hat, long-debunked pro-inductive fallacies with a central argument that appears to be nothing more than "assume induction!", all varnished in leaden Objectivese just to add to its delights. If there's any idea that can't be found in say, Anthony O'Hear from 30 years ago I will be very surprised. In fact if there's anything even as modern as that I will be even more surprised. But that will have to wait for now.

While there are no doubt underlying personality clashes and long standing enmities behind the scenes which will play out over time, for once the primary driver of the schism is a genuine philosophical problem - one that Objectivism has long been on a collision course with. And far from triumphantly flattening the dreaded Hume, this culmination of decades-long endeavour from Rand's vaunted New Intellectuals has crumpled like a wet paper bag on first contact. To make matters worse, Peikoff's telling sense of intellectual insecurity has driven to him to a desperate authoritarianism, which in turn has only maximised the debacle and created deep rifts within the movement. In short, Objectivism seems to have confronted its first real intellectual challenge, only to be immediately holed below the waterline.




Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 19

Alternatives to Foundationalism. Whenever the Objectivist mania for “validating” such things as “reality,” “causality,” “man’s mind,” “the senses,” “reason,” “concepts,” and “morality” is subjected to criticism, sooner or later somebody will come forward and suggest that without such validation, how can we know anything? If the skeptic is not refuted, how can he be prevented from wreaking havoc within society, and sending civilization over the brink?

Ironically, this challenge was laid to rest over two centuries ago by the philosopher often most associated with extreme skepticism, David Hume:

For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. A Copernican or Ptolemaic, who supports each his different system of astronomy, may hope to produce a conviction, which will remain constant and durable, with his audience. A Stoic or Epicurean displays principles, which may not be durable, but which have an effect on conduct and behaviour. But a Pyrrhonian cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind: or if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. On the contrary, he must acknowledge, if he will acknowledge anything, that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail. All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence. It is true; so fatal an event is very little to be dreaded. Nature is always too strong for principle. And though a Pyrrhonian may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches. When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them.



Santayana expanded on this theme in his Scepticism and Animal Faith, which is one of the most thorough critiques of foundationalism to date. Pursing doubt to its ultimate end, Santayana challenges self-consciousness, discourse, logic, change, memory and time. In doing so, he goes well beyond Descartes’ doubts to discover the ultimate certainty, the perusal of a passing datum, a mere instance of awareness. This “solipsism of the present moment,” Santayana concludes, cannot possibly be a bedrock of certainty, because it does not constitute knowledge. It is the awareness of a given without a basis for belief. Knowledge does not arise until intelligence arrives on the scene and connects these instances of awareness into larger, meaningful wholes, which can then be interpreted as symbols of a posited, external reality existing in time and space. Since this exercise of intelligence is not given, why then should it be trusted? Santayana answers “by animal presumption, positing whatever object instinct is materially predisposed to cope with, as in hunger, love, fighting, or the expectation of the future.” In other words, it is by an instinct, which Santayana calls “animal faith.” But this animal faith is by no means an entirely groundless or “arbitrary” inclination, but one which is tested and corroborated during every moment when intelligence holds dominion over our lives.

Critical to Santayana’s view is the notion that some views are biologically inevitable, so that philosophers who deny them are not being altogether sincere. “I should be ashamed to countenance opinions which, when not arguing, I did not believe,” he insists. Some beliefs are inevitable because they have been bred in us by evolution (or by “nature,” if you prefer). These are beliefs that are associated with successful action, which is often the best test of truth. For Santayana, while the nature of truth is correspondence, the test of truth is pragmatic. This is a different orientation than what is found in Objectivism, which, in relation to these issues, often equivocates between rationalistic speculation (e.g., the Objectivist axioms) and an extreme empiricism (e.g., basing all knowledge on the “evidence” of the senses). But the ultimate raison d’ĂȘtre of knowledge is to cope with animal needs; and so whatever knowledge best satisfies these needs, which leads to successful action and solves the most problems in the real world, is that knowledge which most likely has the stamp of truth about it.

Santayana concludes as follows:

Living when human faith is again in a state of dissolution, I have imitated the Greek sceptics in calling doubtful everything that, in spite of common sense, any one can possibly doubt. But since life and even discussion forces me to break away from a complete scepticism, I have determined not to do so surreptitiously nor at random, ignominiously taking cover now behind one prejudice and now behind another. Instead, I have frankly taken nature by the hand, accepting as a rule in my farthest speculations the animal faith I live by from day to day. There are many opinions which, though questionable, are inevitable to a thought attentive to appearance, and honestly expressive of action. These natural opinions are not miscellaneous, such as those which the Sophists embraced in disputation. They are superposed in a biological order, the stratification of the life of reason. In rising out of passive intuition, I pass, by a vital constitutional necessity, to belief in discourse, in experience, in substance, in truth, and in spirit. All these objects may conceivably be illusory. Belief in them, however, is not grounded on a prior probability, but all judgements of probability are grounded on them. They express a rational instinct or instinctive reason, the waxing faith of an animal living in a world which he can observe and sometimes remodel.



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.