Monday, August 19, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 43

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 16: Falsifibility. Toward the end of his essay on the Anayltic-Synthetic Dichotomy, Peikoff tackles falsifiability:

Those who claim to distinguish a posteriori and a priori propositions commonly maintain that certain truths (the synthetic, factual ones) are "empirically falsifiable," whereas others (the analytic, logical ones) are not. In the former case, it is said, once can specify experiences which, if they occurred, would invalidate the proposition; in the latter, one cannot. For instance, the proposition "Cats give birth only to kittens" is empirically falsifiable" because one can invent experiences that would refute it such as the spectacle of tiny elephants emerging from a cat's womb. But the proposition "Cats are animals" is not "empirically falsifiable" because "cat" is defined as a species of animal....

Observe the inversion propounded by this argument: a proposition can qualify as a factual, empirical truth only if man is able to evade the facts of experience and arbitrarily ... invent a set of impossible circumstances that contradict these facts; but a truth whose opposite is beyond man's power of invention, is regarded as independent of and irrelevant to the nature of reality, i.e., as an arbitrary product of human "convention." [IOTE, 117-118]

This passage provides a nice brief summary of what is wrong with Peikoff's essay. His objections are ludicrous. They seem founded on little more than an animus against non-Objectivist positions coupled with an inability to understand and appreciate any view not sanctioned by Rand. The distinction between empirically falsfiable and non-falsifiable statements is not made so that individuals can "evade facts of experence and arbitrarily invent" impossible circumstances. To even assume such a thing proves Peikoff's cluelessness about not only the analytical-synthetic dichotomy, but falsifiability as well. The reason for prefering falsifiable to non-falsifiable propositiosn has to do with the issue of testability. Empirically falsifiable proposition are testable; non-empirically falsifiable views are not testable. Analytic propositions are not testable because they are true by definition: no experience can refute them; they tell us more about word usage than reality.

The whole point of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is to note this duality in propositions: some propositions are self-referential. If they are true, it is because they are "true by definition." Such "truth" is not all that significant because it is lacking in empirical content. Other statements are rich in empirical content. These statements are much more significant. While it may be true that the ASD tends to draw this distinction a bit too tightly, nevertheless there are statements that are more or less analytic and untestable on the one side, and statements that are more less synthetic and testable on the other.

Now Rand over and over again insisted that she sought to establish the connection of man's knowledge to reality. Even if we are willing to entertain Rand's suggestion that this connection had been compromised or severed by "evil" philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology does little to help re-establish the connection. Rand decided that the problem of knowledge is largely a problem of conceptualization. For Rand, men are led astray, cognitively speaking, not by poorly tested theories, but by "improper" conceptualization. The process of forming concepts, Rand declared, is not automatic. Men must discover a method of concept formation, which must be consciously applied (or consciously programmed into the "subconscious"). But as I have repeately noted, this approach leads to an over-emphasis on the process by which knowledge claims arise. Since, as cognitive science has discovered, much of this process is unconsious, hidden from the watchful eye of consciousness, it is futile to emphasize how knowledge claims arise. We can't actually evaluate the rationality of how conclusions arise, since those processes are (mostly) invisible to us; but we can evaluate the claims themselves by subjecting them to criticism and tests. The path to the very sort of rationality Rand claims to support involves concentrating on testing and criticizing our knowledge claims after they have been made, rather than worrying about how those claims were originally formed. However, before we can test a conclusion, it must in fact be testable. Hence the usefulness of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. If we wish to achieve whatever degree of rationality that human beings are capable of attaining, then we should encourage the development of testable (i.e., largely synthetic), rather than non-testable (i.e., largely analytic) knowledge claims. The lingua franca of empirically responsible philosophy is testable conclusions. Non-testable conclusions are the province of rationalizers, ideologues, deceivers, and cult-mongers. The philosopher who passes off non-testable "analytic" propositions as the chief "axioms" of his philosophy is not seeking truth; he is, rather, looking for a place to hide, so that he can safely evade any potentially effective criticism which might come his way.


Lee Kelly said...

Well put.

Bryan M. White said...

Uh oh! Better break out the pipe and slippers. Looks like butt kissing train has ARRIVED. Choo! Choo! Oh yeah! *woof* *woof* *woof*

But seriously though, can Peikoff possibly miss the point more? No one, as far as I know, is trying to say that cats are going to give birth to elephants. They're just saying that in the incredibly incredibly INCREDIBLY unlikely event that you should witness such a thing, we'd have to rethink the proposition "Cats ONLY give birth to kittens." No one is trying to say that it's GOING to happen, or even that it's possible to happen. AS FAR AS WE KNOW, it isn't. No one is trying to undercut science or biology or the relative certainty of what we know.

The point is simply that experience is open-ended, that you have to be prepared for contingencies that might make it necessary to rethink our ideas. It's not about the nature of the truth, but about how we as human beings have to approach the truth and limitations of what we know.

In the Peikoff quotes from the past two posts there seems to be a common theme. Someone points out that human beings are not omniscient and he assumes that they're saying that reality and truth itself is uncertain.

Neil Parille said...

The a priori/a postieri distinction has been accepted by virtually all philosophers (including Aristotlee) until recent times. I don't think all these thinkers were trying to "evade the facts of reality."

It's been a while since I read Peikoff's piece, but I doubt he gives the names of the philosophers who are the target of his invective.

That there's a difference between statements such as "2+2=4" and "adult cats have 30 teeth" strikes me as intuitively correct. Even if there is a sense in which they are a root the same (as I gather Objectivists maintain) it hardly follows that to hold the position is done for the reasons Objectivists say.

What seems to be driving the train is a radically anti-theistic motivation. If there is anything in the universe that is contingent, it opens the door for theism. I'm not clear however why human beings are exempt from this principle.

Neil Parille said...

Incidentally, Rand once said that she didn't support the death penalty because even though it might appear conclusively that a person was guilty, we might be mistaken.

Ayn Rand - another "mystic" trying to evade the facts of reality.

Gordon Burkowski said...

Peikoff naturally remains silent about the many, many cases where further research has revealed that yesterday's self-evident facts about the world weren't all that self-evident after all.

There's the example of Copernicus,of course. Then there's Wegener,whose theory of Continental Drift was placed firmly on the lunatic fringe by most geologists - until it turned out to be true. And how about Newtonian vs Einsteinian concepts of time and space?

As Branden noted in his essays on the benefits and hazards of Rand's philosophy, Objectivists have real trouble handling the idea that new discoveries might disturb their notions of what is and isn't self-evident. As he tells it, Rand was even sceptical about Darwin.

Of course it's possible to trot out arguments from Rand's epistemology (full context of human knowledge etc.) to show that Objectivism can handle radical paradigm shifts. But those provisos are kept firmly in the background: for most Objectivists, extreme empirical dogmatism is part of their DNA.

Gordon Burkowski said...

Incidentally, Peikoff's own crazy example of cats producing elephants was obviously written before the latest wave of genetic experiments. We're learning how careful one needs to be before announcing that something can never be possible. After all, this is now a world where cows can yield milk containing spider silk. . .

Neil Parille said...


But we can say "cats, absent radical genetic modification, can't produce elephants."

At some point certain empirical statements approach the 2+2=4 type of certainty.

Again, I don't see what profound truth results from this. I think everyone, except Peikoff and some Objectivists, realize that how we frame these issues is not such a big deal.

I imagine if you look at it you would find that it is radical leftists who reject the a priori/a postieri distinctions. If you wanted to teach that reality is "socially constructed" you'd probably start with undermining this.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Neil Parille: What seems to be driving the train is a radically anti-theistic motivation. If there is anything in the universe that is contingent, it opens the door for theism.

I'm inclined to think that what's driving the train here is not so much anti-theism per se than Rand's obsession with certainty. She was so desperate to achieve this goal that she redefined the word ("certainty is contextual") in order to make it attainable, all the while railing against any suggestion that uncertainty or contingency is inherent in human cognition.

I see Rand's anti-theism as a consequence of her obsession with certainty, since allowing for a divine wild card would destroy her entire effort. But I don't think it's the primary here.

Francois Tremblay said...

"I imagine if you look at it you would find that it is radical leftists who reject the a priori/a postieri distinctions. If you wanted to teach that reality is "socially constructed" you'd probably start with undermining this. "

Which again goes to show how little you can reason once you start veering into political issues. No, radical leftists do not reject the a priori/a postieri distinctions, nor do they believe that reality is socially constructed (our selves and decisions are socially constructed, not "reality"). You are absolutely fucking insane.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"If there is anything in the universe that is contingent, it opens the door for theism."

Sorry Neil, but this doesn't make much sense to me. Could you elucidate?

Bryan M. White said...

I think he's saying that the possibility of God can't ever come completely ruled out.

Kind of a reverse Russell's Teapot, I guess.

gregnyquist said...

"If there is anything in the universe that is contingent, it opens the door for theism."

The idea here is that contingency opens things up for divine intervention (i.e., miracles). According to Objectivism, miracles are a violation of the law of identity, and those who believe miracles are possible are guilty of denying that A is A.

Here we have yet another example of Rand and her disciples arguing in a vacuum of knowledge. In philosophy, there really isn't much correlation between positions on necessity and contingency and positions on God and theology. The Calvinists, as strict determinists, belief in necessity; Hume, a notorious critic of miracles, believed in the contingency of facts.

Did Rand believe in the necessity of facts in order to close the door to theism? Perhaps that's a partial reason. The larger reason is that she regarded the contingency view as motivated by a desire to evade facts. People who did not want to accept reality would find the contingency view appealing because it meant that things did not have to be the way they were.

I think the error of Rand arises from interpreting the whole issue of contingency and necessity without the requisite background in philosophy to needed to grasp the deeper implications of these conceptions and their relation to other issues in philosophy. Rand didn't really know much about philosophy; and her ignorance is one of the main factors behind her gross misinterpretations of other philosophers. Isabel Paterson, Rand's mentor, noticed this flaw in Rand and tried to correct it: " be fair [to the philosophers you criticize], one must envisage the whole problem of systematic thinking from scratch," Paterson wrote to Rand. To which Rand responded: "I see no point in discussing what some fools said in the past and why they said it and what error they made and where they went off the rails." Note that Rand is assuming that past philosophers are "fools" and is using that as her excuse for not taking the time to understand what they were trying to accomplish. But if she won't bother attempting to understand these philosophers, how can she justify calling them fools? How can she condemn what she doesn't comprehend?

Samson Corwell said...

I personally find social constructionism to be absolute nonsense.

Crawshaw said...

I think to discount any theory wholesale is nonsense, some things seem, at least a little socially constructed, but I would say that the whole of reality is socially constructed. It is just like being an empiricist and enying rationality wholsale. assumptions from both have survived in some fashion.

Crawshaw said...

"I would not say"* the whole of reality is socially constructed.