Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 23

Rand's arguments against innate predispositions. As far as I can make out, Rand made two arguments against innate predispositions: (1) argument from free will; and (2) the argument from innate ideas. Each argument is forced and will only convince die hard Objectivists. The sort of "reasoning" Rand employs is precisely of the sort employed in rationalization: which is to say, the conclusion of the argument has been determined ahead of time; there was never any chance of Rand concluding, from the weakness of her arguments or the absence of evidence, that she was wrong.

(1) Argument from free will. The argument appears in Galt's Speech:

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. 

While this is directed against a specific set of tendencies (i.e., "tendency" to evil), it (presumably) is meant to apply to all tendencies. Like so many arguments in Objectivism, it tacitly assumes premises which are either contrary to experience or inconsistent with Objectivism's general outlook. The argument equates free will with the ability to choose. If something cannot be chosen, the will can't be regarded as free. Since an innate proclivity cannot be chosen, Rand's argument, if it were consisently applied, would over-rule all such proclivities. Human beings, for example, will experience hunger if they have not eaten in a long time. This tendency is almost certainly innate: so why doesn't it abrogate free will? A man does not choose to be hungry; it is a hardwired feature which he is born with. Nonetheless, no Objectivist would argue that hunger for food is contrary to free will. Yet if a man experienced a hunger for status and if this hunger was assumed to be innate, this would be considered contrary to free will!

How is this disparity explained? Why is an innate hunger for food consistent with free will, and not an innate hunger for status? At this time various half-baked rationalizations can be trotted forth. It might be argued, for example, that hunger for food comes from the body, and that hunger for status comes from the mind. However, even if this were true (and it probably isn't), it is merely a distinction without a difference. Whether the tendency derives from the body or the mind makes no practical difference on its effect on free will. In either case, the individual will experience a bias toward certain types of behavior. The only choice he experiences is whether to battle the tendency/appetite or give way to it. If it is further argued that no choice coming from the mind can be innate, then a fresh set of problems immediately arise. In the first place, it is not clear what is meant by assuming that a hunger for status is "mental." If that hunger is innate, it should be ultimately traceable to the individual's DNA; and last I checked, DNA is physical. But even if we assume it is mental in the sense that it doesn't arise to meet some bodily need or desire, even then, it's not clear why it can't be at least partially innate. The tendency for a child to learn language is so strong that it can be considered an instinct; yet this is an instinct which is every bit as "mental" as a hunger for status; and it is almost certainly innate: to assume children choose to learn language is grossly implausible.

Another popular way of reasoning among Objectivists is to argue that, while people may not have any choice to be hungry, they can choose how to satisfy their hunger. Now exactly how this applies to the question at hand is a complete mystery. After all, one could easily argue that, while some people may not have any choice to desire status, they can choose how to attain status. So the fact that you can choose how to satisfy a desire says nothing about question of whether the desire stems from innate sources.

A final argument sometimes advanced by on behalf of Objectivism tries to confuse the issue of universality with innateness. An Objectivist might argue that, because the tendency to strive for status is not universal, therefore it can't be innate. But this is non sequitar. In the first place, human nature is not homogenuous. The innate characteristics of one person can be different from the innate characteristics of another. Not everyone has blue eyes, yet having eyes of a specific color is innate. Moreover, in the cases of a tendency to behavior, we wouldn't expect to find universal adherence to it, because it is only a tendency, and not everyone can be expected to give way to it. Whether hunger for status is universal is not altogether certain. While it may not be universal, it is still a powerful influence on many people, particularly those who seek power. Now if this influence is at least partially innate, it will have to be factored in to any calculations involving the likely behavior of political and social elites. If most human beings are animated by an innate desire for status, then factionalism is a built-in feature of political societies, just as Madison claimed in The Federalist Papers. And if factionalism is built-in, then any sort of purely ideological politics can never be entirely successful, since considerations about status will distort ideological imperatives. Hence the well observed "hypocrisy" of politicians who say one thing while doing something completely different.

(2) Argument from innate ideas. This argument is among Rand's very worst. It combines two egregious errors: (1) it assumes a critical point at issue; and (2) it uses the vagueness of its terms to equivocate to the conclusion desired. Rand begins by introducing an entirely baffling definition of instinct: An “instinct” is an unerring and automatic form of knowledge. She then equates this "automatic form of knowledge" with innate ideas: "Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments." Now presumably a tendency toward a certain type of behavior would qualify, under Rand's system of categorization, either as a type of instinct or "automatic knowledge." It would therefore be an innate idea; and since innate ideas are considered as palpably absurd by Objectivism, they can be ruled out of court.

 This is a pure example of attempting to determine matters of fact on the basis of linguistic constructions — of playing with words, rather than examining facts. First of all, neither an instinct nor a tendency constitutes "an unerring and automatic form of knowledge." Now Rand may define her terms any way she pleases; but she is not allowed to define them for other people. Rand's definition of instinct is hers and hers alone. No non-Objectivist would ever subscribe to it. Nor would any scientist claim that a tendency to behave a certain way constitutes a form of "automatic" knowledge. Since these tendencies arise from the cognitive unconscious, they are often not even known and therefore don't qualify as knowledge, even of the "automatic" variety. As far as can be ascertained, most people, including Rand, do not equate knowledge with either belief or desire. Knowledge requires some sort of conscious warrant, whether in terms of "validation," corroboration, verification, testing, criticism, etc. What actually qualifies as knowledge is a point of dispute among philosophers. But no philosopher or scientist (and probably not even Rand, though her views on instincts and tendencies suggest otherwise) would regard an instinctual fear of snakes or a desire for chocolate as a form of knowledge. Rand's assumption equating instincts and tendencies with knowledge is purely polemical and rationalistic: she assumes it so that she can reach a preordained conclusion. It is not a premise that is consistent with the facts or with the rest of her philosophy. Since instincts and tendencies are not a form of automatic knowledge, there is no point in regarding them as ideas; and if they are not ideas, there is no trouble with them being innate. So Rand's contention that instincts (and/or tendencies) cannot exist because innate ideas cannot exist simply doesn't apply. An instinct or an innate tendency is not an idea; it a tendency to behave in a certain ways.

If Rand continues to insist that such innate propensities are in fact ideas, then she's extended the meaning of idea so far that her previous rejection of innate ideas can no longer be credited. There is no evidence that ideas, in the more traditional sense of the term, can be innate. People are not born with an idea of an isoscles triangle or the theory of relativity. But there is a huge difference between such largely intellectual conceptions and a fear of snakes or squeamishness about incest. It simply will not do to confound them; and by categorizing both under the concept idea, Rand winds up equivocating between what are essentially two very different things.

It must be admitted that Rand's rather perverse way of defining and talking about these issues prevents her from understanding how innate factors actually influence human thinking and behaving. Consider the following passage:

If, in any two years of adult life, men could learn as much as an infant learns in his first two years, they would have the capacity of genius. To focus his eyes (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to perceive the things around him by integrating his sensations into percepts (which is not an innate, but an acquired skill), to coordinate his muscles for the task of crawling, then standing upright, then walking—and, ultimately, to grasp the process of concept-formation and learn to speak—these are some of an infant’s tasks and achievements whose magnitude is not equaled by most men in the rest of their lives. 

This is another example of Rand stubbornly refusing to get the point. What is at issue is not whether the focusing of eyes or the "coordination of muscles" are innate or acquired skills. Many such skills probably are acquired. But how in fact does the infant learn how to see and crawl? Is the behavior by which such skills are mastered itself acquired? If so, acquired from what? No infant suddenly decides, through sheer intellection, I'm going to learn how to focus my eyes. The behavior which leads to the acquistion of such skills as eye-focusing and crawling is almost certainly innate: for if this were not so, how could we explain why all infants (except a few cases involving extreme physical abnormality) inevitably master these skills? The issue of nature vs. nurture essentially comes down to whether human behavior (not human ideas) is innately biased in certain directions, so that projections can be made as to what sort of social arrangements are (or are not) plausible. How a person acts is always more important, in terms of how that individual effects other people, than what he claims to think.

10 comments:

Bob_Mac said...

I think is another example of how she seems to work backwards from where she "needs" to end up politically or ethically, and will jam any square peg into any round hole she has to in order to ensure her preordained destination.

Of course this accusation is difficult to prove, but so much of her writing leads me to this conclusion - so much so that I have real trouble reading it anymore. Strikes me as dishonest.

Rey said...

A couple of Objectivist academics I know describe their relationship to Objectivism this way:

(1) Rand makes a "remarkable" statement.

(2) "Interesting," they think, "how did she reach that conclusion?" [Note that rather than recognize it as an assertion, they assume it's a conclusion.]

(3) Then then set about rationalizing their way to that conclusion.

It's pretty much how Thomas Aquinas approached the Bible -- assume its truth and reason backward from there.

Rey said...

Or to put it another way:

(1) Rand appears to be wrong.
(2) Check your premises
(3) ???
(4) Rand was right!!!

Ken said...

Did Rand look at comparative biology? (Silly question, I'm sure.)

Animals also learn to focus their eyes, crawl, and so forth. If acquiring these skills requires reasoned thought, we must conclude that insects are capable of reasoned thought. However if in animals the skills are innate, why should they not be innate in humans? We are not that different from chimpanzees, especially at the physical levels associated with vision and motor skills.

barry fay said...

As to animals and humans, what differentiates the two is LANGUAGE. Language is essential to what it is to be a human. Given this, the whole idea of the INDIVIDUAL loses all significance (language presupposes a GROUP), and with it the whole objectivist project. The notion of the individual didn´t begin to gain any traction until AFTER the GROUP had ordered life to such an extent that such an illusion could take hold. Even the contributors to this discussion are so inculcated with the American preoccupation with the individual that they haven´t seen the hollowness of this pillar of objectivism. Humans simply cannot, and do not, exist as individuals.

gregnyquist said...

As to animals and humans, what differentiates the two is LANGUAGE. Language is essential to what it is to be a human. Given this, the whole idea of the INDIVIDUAL loses all significance (language presupposes a GROUP), and with it the whole objectivist project.

While the fact that language is social is a good point (children who grow up in isolation from all human contact don't learn to speak), suggesting that the individual loses all significance might be putting a bit too strongly; indeed, it polarizes the whole issue between extreme individualism on one side and extreme groupism on the other, a polarization through which favors Objectivism, as many people, if forced to choose between losing all significance as an individual and being merely an individual, might choose the latter. But fortunately there are intermediate positions between these two extremes, where people can be autonomous individuals and part of a group.

Daniel Barnes said...

I'm going to add a twist suggested by Popper and that interestingly Rand herself almost grasped: that while language may have developed as a social tool (Buhler's language heirarchy suggests the most basic levels, expressive and signaling, are found in most mammals) its higher levels also offer the opportunity for individual reflection and development. For example, if I'm troubled by something, I can write it down and perhaps see the problem more clearly. Quite possibly this is a very important yet entirely unintended consequence of a generally social development.

Francois Tremblay said...

"The innate characteristics of one person can be different from the innate characteristics of another. Not everyone has blue eyes, yet having eyes of a specific color is innate. "

This is a muddled objection. The innate property is obviously that one has an eye color, not the specific eye color. Eye color is not innate, as proven by the fact that eye color changes depending on age and environmental factors. So you're wrong on that one.

The rest of the entry is good, though. Just be careful and do your research on technical topics like that.

barry fay said...

“it polarizes the whole issue between extreme individualism on one side and extreme groupism on the other, a polarization through which favors Objectivism, as many people, if forced to choose between losing all significance as an individual and being merely an individual, might choose the latter.”

First, setting up two extremes, with one being “extreme individualism” begs the question: the very idea of extreme individualism is absurd given the social nature of human existence. As I´ve pointed out, the whole success of the human enterprise has been a result of cohesive groupings and joint undertakings – think of it as “civilization”. Without that, we would have been eaten a long time ago – or survived in scattered caves where any talk of “individualism” would never have come up!
Second (if that is not enough) - That people in an almost pathologically selfish society would “choose” the significance of the individual is almost self-evident – but does not make the notion any less of an illusion.

Then the synthesis: “where people can be autonomous individuals and part of a group.”

This assertion strikes me as an oxymoron, whether autonomous is meant philosophically (acting or ABLE TO ACT in accordance with rules and principles of one's own choosing – see language again) or biologically (existing as an organism independent of other organisms or parts – a nice trick if you could pull it off. Good luck!).

barry fay said...

“(Buhler's language heirarchy suggests the most basic levels, expressive and signaling, are found in most mammals)”

This, too, begs the question: by reducing “language” to something animals can do, you have already removed it from its defining role in what it is to be human. The fact is that almost all linguists and semioticians use the term “animal communication” as way of avoiding the misconception that human language is just an extension of animal grunts. (because the interaction between animals in such communication is FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT in its underlying principles from human language).

“its higher levels also offer the opportunity for individual reflection and development.”

This looks like chicken and egg stuff. What is really being referenced by “individual reflection and development” is just “consciousness” and, as Stuart avers: it “is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.” At the risk of confirming Stuart; did consciousness make higher levels of language possible or vice-versa?