Friday, December 31, 2010
If we go by the evidence collated from common experience (i.e., so-called "common sense"), it is far more likely that man's "values" are an expression of his emotions, rather than vice versa. Rand is here guilty of assuming that man's values are (or ought to be) the product of non-emotional cogitation. But since cognitive science has discovered that non-emotional cogitation is probably a fantasy, we have every reason to believe that emotions must play at least a part in the forming of values. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how it could not be so. Ask any individual why he values something, and it will be found that some emotion or desire or sentiment is at the bottom of the whole thing. If a man values a certain type of music, it is because listening to it causes him pleasure; if he values meditation, it is because it improves his well-being (i.e., it makes him feel better); if he values self-flagellation, it is because he believes it will improve his well-being in the hereafter. Some values, of course, are rather contrived and even mad, such as values attached to ideological and religious systems; but there's still some sentiment or desire that is at the bottom of it, however twisted or narcissitic it might be. The individual who values mercy to child molesters might be guilty of entertaining a perverse and artificial value, disconnected from any natural need or sentiment, but that value has its root, not in "reason" or logic, but in some kind of pathological humanitarian affectation.
This point was fleshed out by Hume more than 250 years ago, as follows:
It appears evident, that the ultimate ends [i.e., values] of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man, why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.
Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other... Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.
Not only did Rand fail to provide evidence for her curious contention, she made no attempt to grapple with contrary arguments. Hume's position, as stated above, appears nearly irrefragible. In any case, if Rand wishes her contention to be taken seriously, at the very least she should have given us compelling reasons to reject Hume's argument. How, if not on the basis of some sentiment or affection, does man come by any values at all? If Rand had been a serious thinker dedicated the discovery and elucidation of truth, she would have attempted to provide a serious, detailed, fact-based answer to this question.
[This being the last post of 2010, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all the good readers of ARCHNBlog a happy New Year. And to our bad readers, also, a happy New Year.]
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
“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:
- Very sophisticated cognitive science experiments
- Through introspection
- 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."
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
In point of fact, Rand's assertion is almost certainly false. In any case, if it is a conjecture, it's been falsified by the "Iowa Gambling Task," an experiment that demonstrated the ability of the unconscious mind to make inferences on its own:
Participants are presented with 4 virtual decks of cards on a computer screen. They are told that each time they choose a card they will win some game money. Every so often, however, choosing a card causes them to lose some money. The goal of the game is to win as much money as possible. Every card drawn will earn the participant a reward. Occasionally, a card will also have a penalty. Thus, some decks are "bad decks", and other decks are "good decks", because some will lead to losses over the long run, and others will lead to gains. The decks differ from each other in the number of trials over which the losses are distributed.
Most healthy participants sample cards from each deck, and after about 40 or 50 selections are fairly good at sticking to the good decks.... Concurrent measurement of galvanic skin response shows that healthy participants show a "stress" reaction to hovering over the bad decks after only 10 trials, long before conscious sensation that the decks are bad.
In other words, the unconscious mind figures out which decks are bad before this awareness reaches the conscious mind. These findings are consistent with a large body of experimental research (see Timothy Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves).
“If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character.” The phrase "programmed by chance" means something along the lines of: not sufficiently focused. Remember that according to Objectivism, the ultimate choice is to focus or not. Stated in its bald form, this seems extreme. Since any conscious person is, ipso facto, focused, this doctrine has to be restated in terms of degrees. It is the degree of focus that is important. One needs an intense enough degree of focus to be aware of one's own conceptual integrations, or else one will be prone to integrating errors. Those errors, once planted into one's subconscious, will lead to irrational emotions and other disturbing psychological phenomena (such as, par example, a fondness for "malevolent" art or music).
Did Rand provide any evidence for this view? Nope. Nor did she explain why she believed it. Then what reason can any rational person have for believing it? None whatever.
As anyone who has bothered to read some of the popular expositions about the "adaptive" unconscious knows, the subconscious (or unconscious--these words mean the same thing) doesn't work this way. The conscious not only processes knowledge, but makes decisions and organizes memory. The relevant evidence (see the above mentioned Strangers to Ourselves) strongly suggests that the conscious mind neither is nor could be in control all the time. The conscious mind, far from being a gate keeper of what goes into the unconscious, can at best merely provide critical testing of what comes out.
A “ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection” yielding a “conceptual identification of your inner states” allows one to discover the sources of one’s emotions. Same problem as before: how does Rand know this? what is her evidence?
Since it's now generally believed that the conscious mind is merely the "tip of the iceberg," Rand's advice about "ruthlessly honest" introspection seems misplaced. Since most of one's "inner states" lie below the threshold of consciousness, they cannot be introspected. It matters little how ruthless honest the individual hopes to be when the impossible is his goal. The attempt to introspect what cannot be introspected will most likely lead to little else but self-aggrandizing rationalizations.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception....Where is Rand's evidence for this view? Again, we have nothing -- merely her own say-so. In Objectivism, emotions are equated with mere "whims"; to allow one's judgment to be affected by emotions is tantamount to committing the horrible crime of "whim worshipping." This, of course, is an argument ad hominem with no scientific standing whatsoever.
Cognitive science has discovered that emotions play an important role in decision making:
Recent research suggests that emotions are just as influential as cognitive processes when it comes to decision making. This is interesting because emotions are often considered irrational occurrences that may distort reasoning. According to Sayegh, the conventional way of thinking about decision making is to banish emotion from its decisions entirely. According to them, the decision makers should act using a “cool head” where decisions should come only from rational and cognitive processes to obtain the best results. The implications of emotions during decision making processes have only recently been discussed in some detail. With the growing body of knowledge on emotions in decision making, researchers have proposed various theories to help further our understanding of what influences the decisions that we make.
One of the most important theories illustrating the role that emotions play in decision making is the Somatic Marker Hypothesis:
The somatic marker hypothesis is a very relevant theory when discussing emotions in decision making. It states that bioregulatory signals such as feelings and emotions provide the principal guide for decisions where individuals, when dealing with a judgement, will assess the severity of the outcomes, their probability of occurrence and their emotional quality to provide their decision. According to Dunn,“the somatic marker hypothesis proposes that ‘somatic marker’ biasing signals from the body are represented and regulated in the emotion circuitry of the brain, particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), to help regulate decision-making in situations of complexity and uncertainty”. Therefore, in situations of complexity and uncertainty, the marker signals allow the brain to recognise the situation and respond quickly.
As mentioned earlier, there is an intimate connection between emotion and cognition in practical decision making. Damasio used somatic marker hypothesis to explain how emotions are biologically indispensable to decisions. He suggested that when choosing between options that differ in relative risk, a somatic marker (for example, a “gut feeling”) feeds back to the brain and influences cognitive appraisal. Thus emotions often unwittingly form the basis of many of our decisions and the conventional belief that cognitive processes alone run our decision making processes has been disregarded. It is in fact an interplay between emotions and cognition that helps us during decision making processes.
Now whether right or wrong, at least the Somatic Marker Hypothesis has a body solid evidence that can be placed in it's favor. For example, it is found that people who, through brain damage to the VMPFC, suffer from impaired emotional faculties are incapable of making the simplest decisions. One patient was unable to choose an appointment time with his neurologist because he gave countless arguments for every time that was proposed.
If Objectivists wish their view of the role of emotions in cognition to be taken seriously, they need to (1) provide scientific evidence on behalf of their view, and (2) explain why the evidence supporting the Somatic Marker Hypothesis is not inconsistent with Rand's assertions about emotion.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Rand, alas, never provided any evidence for this assertion. Her chief disciple, Leonard Peikoff, did provide the following:
...When, as a college teacher, I would reach the topic of emotions in class, my standard procedure was to open the desk, take out a stack of examination booklets, and, without any explanations, start distributing them. Consternation invariably broke loose, with cries such as "You never said we were having a test today!" and "It isn't fair!" Whereupon I would take back the booklets and ask: "How many can explain the emotion that just swept over you? Is it an inexplicable primary, a quirk of your glands, a message from God or the id?" The answer was obvious. The booklets, to most of them, meant failure on an exam, a lower grade in the course, a blot on their transcript, i.e., bad news. On this one example, even the dullest students grasped with alacrity that emotions do have causes and that their causes are the things men think. (The auditors in the room, who do not write exams, remained calm during this experiment. To them, the surprise involved no negative value-judgment.)...
There are at least two problems with this: first, it's merely an anecdote and as such cannot be regarded as decisive on this issue; but even more critically, the anecdote doesn't establish what it claims. Even if "the dullest students grasped with alacrity that emotions" are caused by "the things men think," the reactions to the surprise exam don't establish this. Peikoff's anecdote begs the question. For the real question is not whether emotions are inexplicable or whether thinking may influence emotions, it's whether emotions are entirely the product of thinking. The Objectivist claim is that the value judgment comes first in the form of a conscious thought, and the emotion comes afterwards. But it's quite possible (and, indeed, far more consistent with the obvious evidence) that the causation is, at least in some instances, reversed: that is, that value judgment could not have taken place without a prior emotion.
Evidence for the emotion-must-comes-first view can be gleaned from many sources. Indeed, it would appear to be a fairly obvious inference from facts commonly known. Consider the following from the Aristotelian scholar Neera K. Badhwar:
The idea that the emotions have to be programmed by the intellect, whereas the intellect can choose values independently of any help from the emotions, suggests a hierarchical relationship between intellect and emotion, and a unidirectional picture of moral and psychological development. First the intellect, functioning independently of the emotional faculty, collects the data and makes value-judgments; then it programs the emotional faculty. On this picture, the preprogrammed emotional faculty is inert, unable to make any value responses, and unable to play a fundamental role in forming or aiding the intellect. [Note: Badhwar provides evidence for this view in her footnotes.]
However, if infants and young children (not to mention animals) have emotions in a pre-conceptual form -- as they surely do -- then emotions cannot be entirely dependent on the intellect. We feel fear, anger, contentment, empathy, and pleasure in a pre-conceptual form long before we acquire the capacity tomake value-judgements. Insofar as these are responses to that which we sense as somehow good or bad for us, valuable or disvaluable, it follows that we are able to make value responses long before we are able to make value-judgements. Indeed, it is only because we have this pre-conceptual ability for responding to value that we can acquire the capacity for making value-judgments. Thus, preconceptual emotions are necessary for having any more than the most primitive values in the first place, and, thereby, for making value-judgments. Adult emotions build on these pre-conceptual emotions and the value-judgments they make possible. For example, adult fear typically contains not only the components of feeling and physiological response that a child's fear does, but also the value-judgment of the feared object as dangerous or threatening. Which objects are seen as fearful depends not on the judgments of an untouched intellect, but an intellect already shaped to some extent by our preconceptual emotions, and continually influenced by, even as it in turn influences, our adult emotions.
Some Objectivists have claimed that evidence on behalf of Rand's theory of emotions has been compiled on behalf of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The assumption is that CBT=Objectivist theory of emotion. There is no reason to believe this. One of the originators and most influential advocates of CBT, Albert Ellis, wrote the first critical book on Objectivism (Is Objectivism a Religion?), and he made it quite clear that Rand's theory of emotions was simplistic and inadequate:
The virtually perfect, one-to-one relationship between our thought and emotions that Rand and Branden posit is practically nonexistent. Consequently, if they wish to remain unchallenged, their position had better be modified. An emotion tends to arise from a value response. It usually is something of an automatic psychological result of our value judgments. It has, however, other important causative factors connected with human sensing, perceiving, and acting.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
In my own review of Burns' book, I identified a number of standard Randroid responses to non-Objectivist views on Rand.
1. First, they begin with the pro forma objection that the critic is "biased" against Rand, “doesn’t understand Objectivism”, doesn't respect ideas etc. This is despite the fact that, given endless series of intellectual schisms the movement produces, that it is not clear who really does understand Objectivism in the first place.
2. Invoke the Objectivist Double Standard. This means that when Rand makes a wild, evidence-free claim or uses the most malicious, unsympathetic interpretation possible of another thinker’s work (eg Kant), this is ok because with her millennial genius she is in fact grasping the “essentials” of her opponents’ arguments. On the other hand, anyone who criticizes Rand must have read everything she ever wrote or said about anything, and allow her any concession and sympathetic interpretation demanded, no matter how obscure or unlikely.
3. Simply limn the piece in question for the hint of various Thought Crimes such as “determinism”, “pragmatism” or “subjectivism”, and then condemn the author's intellectual and moral standing due to their allegedly underlying commitment to one or all of the above.
And we should add:
4. Garnish each review with standardised ARI talking points about Rand's millennial intellectual and moral qualities and achievements, the evil of the Brandens, the evil of David Kelley, the evil of all "other intellectuals" etc.
Locke's comments admirably fulfill all of the above. Sample Randroidisms include:
"Ayn Rand took logic seriously; overwhelmingly, other intellectuals did not. This is why, as Burns says on p. 188, at a certain point it became “impossible for her to communicate with contemporaries” (e.g., modern intellectuals)."
"Aristotle tried to defend egoism, but only Ayn Rand fully validated it."
"...Ayn Rand revolutionized the field of ethics, rejected the entire Judeo-Christian moral code (altruism), replaced it with a totally unique approach to ethics..."
"The closest thing to a solution to all ills would be her entire philosophy."
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a “tendency” to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.
For nearly two-thousand years, men of thought, under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, attempted to determine matters of fact with rationalistic arguments like the one Rand provides above. It's the method Plato used to assert that the orbits of planets were circular; it was the method Hegel used to assert that the solar system can feature only seven planets; it was the method behind the practice of bleeding people when they were sick; it is the method that Augustine used to deny the existence of antipodes: it is a method that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. Matters of fact simply cannot be determined in this way. No credible scientist would ever be taken seriously if he tried to establish some controversial matter of fact using the method Rand resorts to above.
Argument 2: I'm not aware that Rand ever made this argument, but it has been made by some of her followers, and it is based on Randian constructs:
- Premise 1: A tendency to behave in a certain way is ultimately an automated value judgment
- Premise 2: Value judgments are ideas
- Premise 3: Innate ideas are impossible
- Premise 4: An innate tendency would be an innate idea
- Conclusion: Innate tendencies are impossible
The problem with this argument (besides its excessive rationalism) is that the first three premises involve controversial assertions about matters of fact which can only be settled by a detailed (meaning: scientific) examination of the relevant facts. If Rand and her followers want to be taken seriously on these points, they must (1) provide detailed evidence that there assertions are true; and (2) they must explain why the evidence provided on the opposite side of the issue by geneticists and evolutionary biologists is either irrelevant or false. Until Objectivists get around to doing this, no rational person need take their assertions on these matters seriously.
Friday, December 03, 2010
To describe this viewpoint as controversial greatly understates its tremendous reach. Were it true, it would mean that nearly every scientist in the biological and behavorial sciences, nearly every great poet, dramatist, and novelist, and all great statemen, generals, businessmen, etc. have been wrong; for nearly everyone who has ever studied, described, bargained with, dealt with, or commanded human beings has assumed that man is not a being of self-made soul, that his "soul" (or character) is a product of many factors, and that something called "human nature" most definitely exists and can be used to make generalizations concerning how human beings are likely to react to various incentives. Scientists have discovered, for example, that whether an individual is extroverted or introverted is determined by his genes. As scientists learn more about how DNA influences human character, they are discovering the extent to which a man's personality is innate (it's a rather large extent, estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 per cent). Rand's assertion that man is a being of self-made soul goes into the very teeth of this evidence. This being so, why should we take Rand's assertion seriously? On the one side, we have a veritable mountain of evidence for the belief that character, at least in some respects, is influenced by genetics. In opposition to this Rand provides us with?--nothing. Rand cites no scientific experiment, no article from a reputable scientific journal, no evidence from experimental psychology. Now how likely is it that Rand is right on this point, and thousands of much better informed scientists, scholars, historians, social scientists, statesmen, etc. are wrong?
Rand is clearly wrong: man is not a being of self-made soul. To accept the Randian nonsense is to suffer from an almost egomaniacal delusion. So why haven't Rand's disciples attempted to remedy this glaring defect in her philosophy? After all, aren't Objectivists supposed to be "objective," concerned for the truth, eager to get the facts right? Isn't that what Rand's philosophy, on its epistemological side, is all about? But no; Rand's followers have no interest in repairing this major faux pas in the Objectivist philosophy. How can they? It's one of their philosophy's chief presuppositions. Without it, the whole structure becomes wobbly, and threatens to fall. If man is not a being of self-made soul, the Objectivist philosophy of history becomes utterly untenable; some of Rand's ethical ideals, particularly her virtues of selfishness, pride, and integrity, become deeply problematic; and her politics becomes unachievable and therefore fabulous and utopian. Rand's entire project of "saving" the world depends on the notion that how a man uses his cognitive faculty ultimately determines his character; for if man has no control, whether direct or indirect, over his character, then we should expect his innate biases to influence him in the future as they have influenced him in the past. Take away Rand's extreme self-determinism, and the old rules apply once again. The conservative (or "Tragic") vision of human nature, dramatized by Sophocles and Shakespeare, limned by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, scientifically explicated by E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and other scientists, is once more vindicated.