Friday, March 29, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 34

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 7: Naming and Knowledge. I have repeatedly insisted that definitions define word usage. Perhaps, before we go any further, this needs to be fleshed out a bit.

Naming an object, a process, or an attribute involves little if any knowledge. Take the word poison. This term can be defined as any chemical substance that injures, impairs, or kills an organism. Note that this definition doesn't actually specify what chemical substances are in fact poisons or whether such substances exist. It merely states that if a chemical substance injures, impairs, or kills, then we will call it a "poison."

Does this definition of poison provide any non-trivial information about matters of fact? No, it does not. It is quite possible to know the definition of poison and yet know nothing of any specific poison. The definition of poison merely provides a naming convention. If you come across a substance that harms or kills an organism, it's "poison." But a naming convention is not knowledge. Knowing what to call things is different from knowing about things.

What are called "analytical truths" are merely deductions from naming conventions. This is why analytical truths are considered empty and tautological. They provide little if any information about matters of fact. They merely explain how various objects of thought are labeled. Hence the bad repute which definitional arguments have. Matters of fact cannot be determined on the basis of naming conventions.

In his essay on the Analytic Synthetic Dichotomy, Peikoff writes,

Denying that concepts have an objective basis in the facts of reality, nominalists declare that the source of concepts is a subjective human decision: men arbitrarily select certain characteristics to serve as the basis (the "essentials") for a classification; thereafter, they agree to apply the same term to any concretes that happen to exhibit these "essentials." [IOTE, 96]

Peikoff has provided here a malicious and distorted version of the theory I limned earlier in this post. He begins by declaring that nominalists deny "that concepts have an objective basis in the facts of reality." I'm not aware of a single nominalist who has ever said such a thing. Neither Locke, Hume, or Berkeley ever make such a statement. Peikoff really needs to provide specific examples and citations if he wishes to be taken seriously. Peikoff next attributes to nominalists the belief that the "source of concepts is a subjective human decision." Again, who among the major nominalists believes such a thing? Nominalists merely believe that words are "subjective" human decisions. Peikoff is here guilty of confusing concepts with words and then applying his confusion to the views of nominalists. Next we find Peikoff trotting out Rand's favorite scare-word, "arbitrary." The nominalists, according to Peikoff, believe that essential characteristics are "arbitrarily selected." This suggests that such characteristics are picked at random, like tickets at a lottery. This is yet another malicious distortion. Nominalists usually talk about concepts being formed on the basis of "convenience." This is little different from Rand's own theory, which claims that concepts are formed on the basis of cognitive efficiency.

Peikoff proceeds with a masterful bit of malicious distortion, as follows:

[Nominalists] commonly advance the [analytic-synthetic] dichotomy as a self-contained primary, independent of any theory of concepts. Indeed, they usually insist that the issue of concept-formation --- since it is "empirical," not "logical" --- is outside the province of philosophy. (!) (Thus, they use the dichotomy to discredit in advance any inquiry into the issues on which the dichotomy itself depends.) [IOTE, 97]

Peikoff begins here with an entirely unsubstantiated, and indeed, not entirely coherent allegation: nominalists take the analytic-synthetic dichotomy as a "primary"! I suppose what Peikoff is suggesting is that nominalists don't provide reasons for accepting the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. That allegation is simply not true. The analytic-synthetic dichotomy, as I pointed out in an earlier post, is an attack on rationalistic speculation. It attempts to demonstrate the futility of determining matters of fact by analyzing the meanings of words. It constitutes a frontal assault on Rand's own methods used in rationalizing Objectivism. That is why Peikoff resents the dichotomy and tries to refute it.

Having accused nominalists of taking the ASD as a primary, Peikoff next does an about face and accuses nominalists of being too empirical. Since such criticism could easily make Peikoff look bad, he places the word empirical in quotes, as if to suggest that the nominalist appeal to facts is phony. After all, aren't these the same folks who believe in the ASD for no reason at all? Peikoff, having distorted and caricaturized nominalism in this fashion can now deliver the final blow: nominalists have the nerve to insist that the issue of concept-formation is "outside the province of philosophy"!

Here we find the primary motive for Rand's and Peikoff's hatred of the ASD encaspulated in a single sentence. If by "philosophy" we mean "the attempt to determine matters of fact on the basis of logical, rhetorical, and moral constructions," then the nominalists are guilty as charged. The nominalist believes that matters of fact should be determined empirically, presumably through "scientific" and/or "peer reviewed" research. Rand and Peikoff believe that concept-formation should be determined in much the same way that Aristotle determined facts about the physical universe: that is, through arm-chair speculation vaguely based on notions derived from "common sense." It didn't work for Aristotle; why should we expect it to work for Rand and Peikoff? Concept-formation is an issue dealing with matters of fact. It is far too complicated a subject to be determined via arm chair speculation based on "common sense" or introspection. It requires sophisticated research techniques combined with exhaustive criticism and peer review. To render an appeal to "philosophy" (i.e., rationalistic speculation) as a kind of badge of honor demonstrates just the sort of empirical irresponsibility that characterizes the Objectivist modus operendi.

Peikoff next trots out Rand's theory of concept formation as the answer to the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. Once again, Peikoff demonstrates his cluelessnes about the ASD. The origin of concepts are irrelevant to this issue. The ASD, to the extent that it has relevance, is primarily about drawing a distinction between assertions based on empirical observations and assertions based on the analysis of meaning. If we wish to communicate meanings or consciously think about them, it helps to name them. But the act of naming fails to provide non-trivial information about matters of fact.

We can see that this is so by returning to the example of poison. Knowing the definition of poison does not provide any knowledge about poisons; it merely states that any chemical substance we come across that harms, impairs, or kills organisms we will label as poison. Knowledge only arises when we discover, through empirical research, substances that correspond to our definition. The definition itself tells us nothing of reality, only what some attribute or substance, whether real or not, may be labeled.

Now an Objectivist could argue, in response to this, that the concept poison could only be formed after some individual had discovered, through observation and experimentation, the actual substance. Even if this were true, it would be irrelevant. If the concept of poison could only be developed after an acquaintance of an actual chemical substance that harms, impairs, and/or kills, that is of little consequence: the definition of poison still remains a naming convention. Knowledge of matters of fact does not arise from meaning; it arises only when we assume that a given meaning describes an actual matter of fact. The fact that a given meaning was originally inspired by empirical observation does not in any way reflect on the potential validity or usefulness of the ASD. Meanings are neither true or false, valid or invalid, they just are. Rand's favorite tautology, A is A, applies, not to facts, but to meanings. The identification of matters of fact is a much more complicated matter which is best represented by the phrase A exists or A is. (And the identification of attributes involves predication, i.e, A is B.) Once a meaning is formed, it can be used to describe both fact and fiction, truth and error.

Further evidence for this point of view can be derived from the fact that some concepts really do begin their careers prior to experience. Robot, for example, is a term first introduced  by the Czech playwright Karel ńĆapek, who used it to describe creatures produced by a factory in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). But the meaning or concept of robots antedates the term and originates in ancient mythology. Atom is an example of another term that began prior to any experience or evidence of atoms. When scientific evidence for the existence of atoms began to emerge, the meaning of the term had to be revised. But that often happens with meanings. If a person comes across something new in the factual world, he will often hunt for some familiar meaning to describe it. This is the primary reason why words have multiple related meanings. Often when confronted with something new, people don't invent a new meaning to describe it; instead they adapt an older meaning to fit the new discovery.

By implication, Objectivism assumes that matters of fact can only be determined if concepts are originally based on facts. This theory involves a complete confusion of the role of concepts in cognition. Concepts are items of description. They are like the various colors of paint plastered on a canvas. By itself, a smudge of paint tells us nothing about matters of fact. Only when the paint is organized into a picture, can it represent an object in reality. Meanings act the same way. By themselves, they are cognitively inert. Only when organized into propositions can they represent matters of fact.

9 comments:

ungtss said...

"Does this definition of poison provide any non-trivial information about matters of fact? No, it does not. It is quite possible to know the definition of poison and yet know nothing of any specific poison. The definition of poison merely provides a naming convention. If you come across a substance that harms or kills an organism, it's "poison." But a naming convention is not knowledge. Knowing what to call things is different from knowing about things."

The purpose of defining a concept like "poison" is different than simply knowing what to call it. the purpose is to provide a mental shorthand -- a box -- in which to put all things that are "dangerous and or deadly to life."

this is an extremely useful concept in the context in which it is used. and the context in which it is used is as a guide to action. I do not _need_ to know all the chemical reactions of arsenic within the human body in order to take particular actions with respect to it. all i need to know is that it's "poison." by putting a particular substance in the conceptual box "poison," i have identified it as a thing that i should stay away from if i want to keep myself alive, or pour it all over stuff i want to harm or kill. i know what to _do_ or _not_ do with it, based on what i want to accomplish.

thus you're correct that calling something "poison" doesn't tell you anything about its physical constituents. what it tells you is the thing's effects with respect to life and health. which is a critical thing to understand, even if one does not know all the chemistry involved.

in other words, you're right that it doesn't do what you say it doesn't do. but you're wrong in assuming anybody thinks its should.

ungtss said...

when my three year old was younger, we used a different word with more emotive content to designate poison: "pleh." then whenever we ran across something that would hurt her, we'd label it "Pleh." This was a critically useful piece of information for her, as a two year old non-chemist.

ungtss said...

the biological basis for this sort of short-hand rests in the fact that the conscious mind -- the prefrontal cortex -- can only think about a very few things at a time. in the context of day to day life, i can't process and handle a comprehensive understanding of the constituents and effects of every poisonous substance on earth. nor do i need to. but if this can be boiled down to a single fundamental concept -- like "poison" -- i can act efficiently and effectively with respect to things in my world.

that is the point of concepts. shorthand which allows our conscious minds' limited resources to function at higher efficiency. like high level, object-based computer programming. or reduced instruction code.

J. Goard said...

I find it highly problematic to describe words as the result of "human decisions". I would describe them instead as replicators in the manner of symbiotic organisms, whose degree of success and whose evolved variants obviously depend upon many human social behaviors which can be called "decisions" but also upon many which cannot.

"Poison" is an interesting example, because literal counterexamples to your definition illustrate vividly how ordinary human life experience constrains word meanings in practice:

(1) Someone drinks gallons of water for a radio contest and dies. This is called "water poisoning", but is it true that "Water is a poison"? I don't think so.

(2) Someone drinks a glass of orange juice, and because of blood sugar regulation problems, gets pretty sick. Is orange juice a poison? No.

(3) Someone with congested arteries eats ice cream, which provides the last big of cholesterol to trigger a heart attack. Is ice cream poison? No.

My point is not the pedantic one, namely that you'd have to have qualified your definition further. Rather, it's the empirical linguistic claim that a word akin to 'poison' which included such cases will never survive in a human language community, because it ignores the importance of the default social situation. Words for 'poison' are connected to prototypical behaviors in prototypical situations, as ungtss described. This comes first, and any explicit verbal definition comes later (and invariably misses something).

ungtss said...

interesting point -- another way to look at these counterexamples would be to place them in a context which allows for subtleties of meaning to be chosen and understood.

for instance, i interpret the phrase "water poisoning" in the context of my knowledge that water in moderation is not poison, but too much water at once is poison. thus to me, "water poisoning" means "becoming poisoned because you drank too much water."

or in your latter two examples, a thing that is not poison to one person may be poison to somebody else, because of that person's peculiar health conditions -- just as a substance may be poison to ants but not to people, or vice versa.

thus the word "poison" can be understood in a broader context, to include "poison in excess" and "poison to particular organisms."

ungtss said...

this involves conceptualizing "poison" not so much as a concrete type of substance, but as a relationship between a particular organism and a particular amount of a substance.

so that regardless of the concrete substance, the amount of substance, the organism, or anything else, if the _relationship_ is one of "poison," then the word poison is used.

Anonymous said...

Concept-formation is an issue dealing with matters of fact. It is far too complicated a reality to be determined via arm chair speculation based on "common sense" or introspection. It requires sophisticated research techniques combined with exhaustive criticism and peer review.


So without benefit of peer review , a toddler does not know (or have knowledge of the fact)that that is mommy standing right there?

Daniel Barnes said...

@ J Goard,
You write:
>I find it highly problematic to describe words as the result of "human decisions"..."Poison" [has] literal counterexamples..:

>(1) Someone drinks gallons of water for a radio contest and dies. This is called "water poisoning", but is it true that "Water is a poison"? I don't think so.

Yes. I could also drink cyanide, but so long as the solution is say 0.1mg per 1 litre I will be fine. Does that mean cyanide is not a "poison"?

Which is another example of why it is not worth quibbling over definitions, and the pursuit of "true meanings" of words is a wild goose chase.

Rey said...

Indeed, Greg, "The dose makes the poison," which requires one to use empirical methods over a priori reasoning if one is determine what dosage of which substances are poisonous, as well as for what purposes and in what amounts certain toxic substances can be used, for instance, chemotherapy drugs. A priori reasoning from definitions will not be able to tell us how much etoposide phosphate a cancer patient should receive per session, how many sessions per week, nor for how many weeks.