Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 2

The primary fallacy behind the Objectivist Epistemology. Since human cognition (mostly) operates below the threshold of consciousness, the operations of the mind are not available to introspection; nor can these operations be deduced a priori, since no matter of fact can be determined by a priori reasoning. Rand, in embarking on her epistemological project, found herself in a bit of a bind. She could not base her epistemology on experience (i.e., introspection) or on logic, since neither of these processes can penetrate beneath the veil of the cognitive unconscious. Where, then, is the persuasive force behind Rand's epistemology? How was Rand to convince her followers that her epistemological speculations accorded with reality?

Unable to appeal either to fact or logic, Rand appealed to an old standby: sheer intimidation. If she couldn't persuade with sweet reason, she would resort to browbeating instead. Here's how it works. Rand begins by arbitrarily declaring that man's mind is under attack and needs to be defended.

To negate man's mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.... The philosophers were unable to refute the witch-doctors claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations. [FTNI, 30]

By "invalidating" conceptual knowledge, modern philosophers opened the door to mysticism, altruism, and collectivism:

It is the philosophy of the mysticism-altruism-collectivism axis that has brought us to our present state and is carrying us toward a finale such as that of the society presented in Atlas Shrugged. It is only the philosophy of the reason-individualism-capitalism axis that can save us and carry us, instead, toward the Atlantis projected in the last two pages of my novel. 

By framing the debate in these extravagent terms, Rand is able to position herself as the champion of "conceptual knowledge" while at the same time framing her critics as those who (whether unwittingly or not) are leading Western Civilization of a cliff. Hence, anyone who challenges, criticizes, or even doubts Rand's "validation" of conceptual knowledge is contributing to the destruction of civilization. For Rand, epistemological errors, even of the most trivial sort, are fraught with danger. Consider the following exchange from Rand's epistemological workshops:

Prof. A: ...length doesn't exist per se in reality. Length is a human form of breaking up the identities of things. 
Ayn Rand: Wait a moment, that's a very, very dangerous statement.

Claiming that the proposition "length doesn't exist" is a "very, very dangerous statement" appears rather far-fetched. What evidence does Rand have to support the contention that uttering such a sentence will cause any harm, either to the person who utters or those who hear it? It's just a string of words, without reference to anything practical or consequential: mere speculative patter over obscure technical issues that hardly anyone cares about. It is only dangerous if one accepts Rand's improbable notions about human beings being the playthings of their premises. Even then, it seems a bit of a stretcher.

The deeper problem is that Rand casts her entire validation of concepts under this cloud of danger. Epistemological errors are dangerous because they can lead to an attack on man's conceptual faculty, which can lead to a "negation" of man's mind. Hence Rand tries to intimidate us into accepting her validation of concepts. This stategy, however, is based on a logical fallacy: namely, the argumentum ad consequentiam fallacy. Rand is trying to convince us of the truth of the Objectivist epistemology on the basis of the alleged consequences of following non-Objectivist epistemologies. But this appeal is wrong in a number ways. It is wrong in its assumption that people follow specific epistemologies; it is wrong to assume that there are any consequences to expressing allegiance to this or that speculation about human cognition; and it is wrong in assuming that the alleged consequences of a doctrine can prove anything about the the doctrine itself.

In short, it is intellectually perverse to assume that criticism of Rand's epistemology is either (1) motivated by a desire to destroy man's mind or (2) will by necessity lead to the destruction of man's mind, irrespective of motives. These two implicit premises must be challenged from the start. Nothing is really at stake in a discussion of the Objectivist epistemology beyond the truth of Rand's various speculations about human cognition.  


Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Greg: Rand, in embarking on her epistemological project, found herself in a bit of a bind. She could not base her epistemology on experience (i.e., introspection) or on logic, since neither of these processes can penetrate beneath the veil of the cognitive unconscious.

Rand, of course, claims she did base her epistemology on introspection. The story appears at the end of the appendix to ITOE second edition, where she claims to have figured out her theory of "measurement omission" in less than half an hour, following an unsatisfying debate with a conceptual realist, by asking herself what her mind does when it forms a new concept.

Of course, a different question is how Rand's much-touted epistemological breakthrough -- "measurement omission" --differs from the nominalist position that we form concepts based on "vague resemblances" (which Rand denounces). As far as I can tell, the only difference is that measurement-omission puts a whole lot of mathy-sounding jargon around "vague resemblances."

I'm guessing that you'll be treating the substance of Rand's theory at length in later posts in the series, including an explanation of how introspection can't get to where she claims it did.

Neil Parille said...


I believe in the 80s or 90s David Kelley wrote a couple journal articles trying to show that there was evidence for Rand's theory of concept formation.

Rand's theory seems to oscillate between realism and nominalism, although it strikes me as more nominalistic.

It would be interesting to hear what some Aristotelean-Thomist philosophers might say about Rand's theory.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...


I'm only aware of Kelley's "The Psychology of Abstraction," which, however, I have never read (it's not readily available). Scott Ryan argues that Rand's theory is neither realist or nominalist, but conceptualist. He suggests it was influenced by Roy Wood Sellars (I have serious doubts on that score).

I don't know what Aristotelean-Thomist philosophers would say about Rand's theory. I suspect some might protest Rand's description of Aristotle's theory that essences are "metaphysical."