Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 11

“Definitions preserve ... the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence.” This touches on the Objectivist contention that knowledge is hierarchical. The concept animal is a step higher in the conceptual hierarchy than mammal, for example. Is it true, as Rand asserts, that definitions "preserve" the "logical order" of this hierarchy?

Rand derived her doctrine of definitions from Aristotle. It is not however clear what she means by "logical order," or how definitions go about preserving it. What Rand seems to have in mind (although she's none too clear about it) is the ideal of knowledge as a complete "logical" structure (logical in this sense meaning: integrated without contradiction). In this, Rand is mirroring Aristotle's ideal of knowledge as (in the words of Karl Popper) "an encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences, that is to say, their names together with their defining formulae."

For better or worse, there exists no compelling evidence that knowledge works this way; nor does Rand (or her disciples) provide any evidence, or seem in the least interested in the empirical side of this issue. Yet there is a great deal of evidence that formal definitions are of little importance to understanding the meaning of words. Most words are learned unconsciously, without the aid of formal definitions or dictionaries. Moreover, it can easily be observed that many people understand the meaning of words without being able to provide formal definitions for them. Just ask anyone (besides a linguist or a grammarian) to define the word the and you'll see what I mean.

Now it could be argued that Rand's theory of definitions is not confined to mere formal definitions, but applies to "tacit" or "implicit" definitions as well (whatever those might be), and that when she declares that definitions preserve the logical order of conceptual hierarchies, she is not distinguishing whether those definitions are consciously formalized or are merely implicit and tacit. Yet if this is so, Rand needs to explain (1) how she knows this to be true; and (2) provide compelling evidence for her view.

“Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.” If by definitions, Rand means consciously formalized definitions (after Aristotle methods of essentialist definitions), this is a grossly implausible position, for the reasons provided above. If Rand means merely "tacit" or "implicit" definitions, in the absence of any evidence (none of which is provided by Rand), it is not clear that this is true (or if it is true, whether it has any significance). What would make a lot more sense would be Words without meanings are not language but inarticulate sounds. This suggests that Rand has confused the concept meanings with that of definitions. Definitions are explanations of what a word means; but this does not mean that a definition is identical with the meaning. The meaning of a term can be understood without defining it, because knowledge is largely tacit and intuitive, rather than formalized and logical, as Rand seems to assume.

“The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process.” Given how important this assertion is to some of Rand's claims about history and morality, Rand's unwillingness to provide any evidence for it is most unfortunate. I suspect it never occured to her that she needed to provide evidence, because empirical responsibility was not part of her basic MO. In any case, had she tried to find evidence for it, she almost certaintly would have realized that the statement is not true. Many concepts, perhaps even most concepts, are formed unconsciusly, without anything remotely describable as volition having anything at all to do with the process. Indeed, this is an obvious fact that can be gleaned merely by observing young children learning to speak. How Rand could have ignored and/or evaded these obvious facts is difficult to comprehend.

An animal cannot perform a process of abstraction. Really? How on earth did Rand know this? For it's not clear at all that this is true. Consider the testimony of two neuroscientists, Jorge Martins de Oliveira and Julio Rocha do Amaral:

Although there is no general agreement, we believe that other species are also capable to develop abstractions. Some primates and cetaceans, without any doubt, have abstract conceptions, but these must be very tenuous and, certainly, they never develop, as humans do, to a point of giving rise to high creativity. And, even if it so happened, it would be an innocuous creativity, since they lack the physical attributes to allow them to build up something that could be considered significant and concrete. In spite of these handicaps, the exercise of conscious and abstract thoughts, among dolphins and superior simians, has been widely evidenced.


madbehemoth said...

I can't believe I once thought there was a consistent, logical chain of reasoning from the Objectivist axioms to its ethical and even political principles. The number of unsupported assertions of wildly improbable ideas along the way is enough to make my head spin.

caroljane said...

Dear Mr.Behemoth, I am sorry to see that you have gone mad.It does seem to happen to an unusually high proportion of intelligent people who engage in Rand study.

Fortunately, with modern science, help is available and you have come to the right place.

madbehemoth said...

you have come to the right place

Indeed I have, my convalescence has gone quite well thanks to people here. Huzzah!

caroljane said...

That is wonderful news. It encourages me and all the other concerned friends of Mad Rab from the Hag & Sporran to continue to try to help him. We have to be careful though. He is bigger than everybody in the place and we don't want to make him, you know, madder. But inspired by your story of recovery, we will persevere.

Anonymous said...

"Concept formation is not automatic, but volitional..."

Greg's comment about how this is called into question watching children learn language hits the nail on the head for me.

It's a false dichotomy Rand sets up: concept formation like language acquisition seems to happen because of everything surrounding, for example, a child: people around them speaking, a need to be understood, the desire to mimic the social behavior of family and peers, etc. etc. I think some people might think it's automatic b/c of the way children absorb what's in their environment so readily, but "automatic" isn't the right word. Volitional isn't the right word either.

In any case, I've often wondered about the absence of children in Rand's world, both in her fiction, her writings and in her life. The experience of close contact with children might have done something to correct many of her more off-target notions about cognition. A mere three years of fatherhood have already changed how I view many of these matters.

- Chris

caroljane said...

Amen, Chris.

The concepts of volition and automatic acceptance of axioms become very clear when observing children.

For example, my son has taught his 19-month-old that it is irrational to touch things on Mommy's desk.

I'm still trying to teach my 25-year-old that.

Today's young parents are far more cognitively evolved than my generation. It must be the inexorable spread of Reason.

madbehemoth said...

This isn't particularly substantive, and Rand did have her means of rationalizing the acceptance of government handouts, but it's still kind of funny:


Michael Prescott said...

The article about Rand's use of Medicare was interesting, but as MadBehemoth points out, her behavior is actually in line with what she wrote about accepting government help in a mixed economy. What's odd is that many of the commenters on that site seem to think that Rand was guilty of fraud by using the name Ann O'Connor. But I think this was her legal name, not some kind of criminal alias ...

The article is linked to another one on Rand's "speed addiction." What's interesting about that one are the many commenters who try to rationalize Rand's abuse of amphetamines. One of them even says that Rand's behavior has to be seen "in context" - the all-purpose Objectivist get-out-of-jail-free card!

Anonymous said...

Chris wrote:

"It's a false dichotomy Rand sets up."

Yep. That seems to a characteristic MO. Once I started looking, I found the same pattern everywhere. Everything must be A or B, she asserts. B is (invariably) something nobody in their right mind would accept. Therefore, she concludes, she's proven A. Sometimes she'll throw in an option C, but the method is the same, and she often ends with the claim that B and C, properly understood, reduce to the same error.

What she seems to miss, over and over again, is that the law of the excluded middle applies only if A and B are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. (B has to be exactly equivalent to not-A.) Very often, Rand's A and B fail to satisfy this constraint.

Once one sees this and starts questioning her slate of alternatives, Rand's "logical structure" falls apart with remarkable speed.

To madbehemoth: I feel ya--I can't believe I bought this "logic" either, or for how long.

-- Echo Chamber Escapee

caroljane said...

The false dichotomy and excluded middle ring dusty bells in my memory, but they evoke clear pictures: of intelligent individualists who saw each and every human being they met, or groups they knew of , as A or Non-A; Me or Them; possibly the elusive equal mind, but probably not; cleverly disguised, devious, ignorant or intractably irrational. Not to be trusted until they proved worthy, qualified to be liked but never loved.

Meanwhile they reinforced their rational defences against trust and love, leaving the rest of themselves open to disaster.

Dragonfly said...

@anonymous: right, the false dichotomy is a favorite "argument" with Objectivists. If you say that our senses are not foolproof and can give us erroneous information, they claim that this would imply that we cannot know anything about the physical world. In the same way they claim that if 100% certainty about the physical world is impossible, it would mean that any knowledge about the physical world is impossible. Or they claim that acausal events in quantum mechanics are not possible, because that would mean that anything would be possible, implying that there would be no causality at all, which would make scientific endeavor impossible. In general: if something is not always valid, that means that it can never be valid. That are the people who are always talking about "logic", but they are too stupid to realize that they make a very elementary error of logic.

Michael Prescott said...

Good blog piece on the Ayn Rand-Medicare "scandal" here:


Rand can be criticized for lots of stuff, but not for this, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Why not this then? Do you think she can have it both ways or are you allowed to be an objectivist & claim welfare, provided you don't claim more than you have put in (up until the point of your claim)?

Steven Johnston

madbehemoth said...

are you allowed to be an objectivist & claim welfare, provided you don't claim more than you have put in (up until the point of your claim)?

She has some more or less on target quotes here. Apparently welfare and social security et al are fair game, so long as you denounce them as you receive them!

Michael Prescott said...

"Why not this then?"

Well, she's being criticized on two grounds: hypocrisy and fraud. The fraud charge is that she applied for the benefits under the name of O'Connor rather than Rand. But O'Connor was her legal name, so that's a non-issue.

As for hypocrisy ... she wrote that in a mixed economy it is morally okay to accept government funding, since you are merely attempting to recover some of the money taken from you by taxation, regulation, etc. Since she is on record as holding this position, there's nothing hypocritical about the fact that she followed her own advice.

Many libertarians follow the same dictum - that as long as they are living in a mixed economy, they will play the rules, while continuing to advocate that the rules be changed.

The fact that I personally think libertarianism and Objectivism are unworkable in practice is irrelevant. People who advocate those positions are not being inconsistent when they say that they will take the world as they find it (for now), while working to foster social change.

Dragonfly said...

But what would Roark do?

Xtra Laj said...

Yes, what would Galt do?

Dragonfly said...

Rand: Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma.

They asked themselves: "What would Roark do in this situation?" - and, faster than their mind could identify the proper application of all the complex principles involved, the image of Roark gave them the answer. . . . Such is the psycho-epistemological function of a personified (concretized) human ideal.
(Rand, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," in The Romantic Manifesto")

Well, my gut reaction is that Roark would never accept government welfare. So Rand seems not to be as principled as her own hero, even if she claims that people as her heroes do exist (pointing to herself).

caroljane said...

That's the fascination of Rand. She was trapped (and trapped her followers) in the perfect integration of her fiction with her philosophy. Thus she had to point to her husband (an Eddie Willers if there ever was one) as Roark/Galt, and to long for her Leo, who alas came along in the form of Nathaniel soon-to-be Branden.

Michael Prescott said...

Roark designed a housing project built with government funds. While he was against taxpayer-funded housing, he felt that as long as such projects were being built, they ought to be built right. This is not very different from Rand's rationale about government scholarships and other benefits.

(Of course Roak later dynamited the project - but not because it was government-funded. He dynamited it because his architectural plans had been changed.)

It's true that Galt would not have taken government money, but Atlas takes place at a time when "the men of the mind" are on strike. Rand made it clear to her followers that in the real world it was too early to go on strike, and that they should continue to work within the system while trying to reform it.

Dragonfly said...

I think there is still an essential difference between accepting a commission paid by the government, after all a quid pro quo, and receiving government handouts, which you justify with the dubious argument "that you've already paid enough involuntary to the government". Roark might do the first, but not the latter.

No, I don't think Rand was wrong in being pragmatic in this respect, but her claim that such principled and unpragmatic successful people like Roark existed in real life (hint, hint) was unwarranted. The moral isn't always the practical.

Mr. A said...

“The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process.”

Eh well, I'm sure Objectivists would fall back on the old "it's self appearent".