Monday, August 26, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 44

Measurement Omission 1. Having finished our slow, tedious slog through Peikoff's essay on the Analytic-Sythethic Dichotomy, we can return to the Rand's IOTE and finish out this series on the Objectivist Epistemology.

While much of IOTE is clearly agenda driven (the agenda being Rand's theory of history), there is a portion of Rand's epistemology which, although not entirely free of agenda-based thinking, at least is intermixed with some level of genuine truth-seeking. For example, Rand seems to have sincerely believed that her measurement-omission theory solved the "problem of universals." The question confronting the critic is to determine whether her measurement-omission theory actually delivers the goods.

Rand claimed that  “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.” [13, italics added] This theory has been decisively refuted by Merlin Jetton in a paper he wrote for Kelley's Objectivist Center (now known as the Atlas Society):

Let us test a wider variety of concepts ... to see how well the claim of “measurements omitted” holds up more generally. In other words, we will try to follow Rand’s dictum of reducing a concept to its basis in particular facts (Rand IOTE, 51).

Consider the concept occupation, in the sense of a job or career. Several particulars that might be treated as units in this concept are doctor, fireman, nurse, lawyer, teacher, computer programmer, civil engineer, truck driver, and salesman. They are similar in that each refers to particular kinds of activities the person does in order to earn an income. Such activities differ from case to case, but all such differences are not amenable to some kind of measurement. There is no standard quantitative unit that can be multiplied by a real number to derive a magnitude for each particular occupation and each kind of difference between these occupations. The differences in the activities performed are only qualitative.

Imagine a person assigning a number to each of the above particular occupations according to how he or she would rank each one as desirable, or their difficulty. It then might seem plausible that he or she has some “measurements” to omit. But what does such assignment gain as far as integrating these particulars to form the concept. Nothing at all; indeed, the concept has already been formed. Again, letters of the alphabet would work just as well to rank them. The differences that need to be omitted are qualitative, not quantitative.

This is a devestating refutation. It should settle the issue once and for all, at least among rational individuals. However, there is an even more devestating criticism that could be leveled at Rand's measurement-omission, which I will introduce in my next post.

26 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

I'm certainly no expert on Rand's measurement omission idea, but I highly doubt that she meant "measurement" to always be taken in a literal, quantitative sense. Hell, even the concept "hat" includes all sorts of qualitative varieties. I find it more than a little hard to swallow that Rand wouldn't have been aware of this or taken it into consideration.

As counter-arguments go, this one is a bit insulting. I know you guys don't think much of Rand's intelligence, but even you have to give her a bit more credit than this.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"I highly doubt that she meant 'measurement' to always be taken in a literal, quantitative sense."

Sorry BMW, but this doesn't get Rand off the hook.

Remember, this is how Rand defines ALL concepts. Not some. All.

Yes, there are concepts such as "love" and "hate" where we can - very arguably - measure levels of intensity. But even allowing for this, it's not hard to see that the notion of measurement just doesn't take you very far if you're trying to arrive at a comprehensive idea of what concepts mean.

I have to wonder if you can give me an example - just one example - of the use of the word "measurement" where it is not being used in a quantitative sense. I can't find any.

Bryan M. White said...

If you mean examples from Rand, like I said, I'm not an expert on what she had to say on the subject, and I certainly don't have the material in front of me to quote from.

If you mean examples of how the word is used generally, that's irrelevant. If Rand wanted to use the term "measurement" in some obscure, unconventional, or innovative sense then I suppose that's her prerogative.

If you want ME to give an example, I would say that, for instance, the COLOR of the hat would seem to be an example of a non-quantitative "measurement" of this sort. Again, I can't speak for Rand here, but I highly doubt that she was unaware that the particulars of a universal often come in a variety of colors. Everyone from a five-year-old child to the head of the marketing department knows this. You're trying to tell me that she NEVER thought of this? You're trying to tell me that her measurement omission formula went like this, "You have the concept 'dog' which omits measurements of height, weight, length, and age and anything else that can be expressed strictly and only in numbers and which signify ALL THE POSSIBLE DIFFERENCES between individual dogs." and she was TOTALLY UNAWARE that dogs come in different breeds or colors or have, say, different smells to their breath? Seriously? C'mon.

Daniel Barnes said...

Wow, a philosopher who advocated something fundamentally foolish and contrary to common sense. That just never happens.

Bryan M. White said...

Yeah. Yeah. Alright. But you're going to have to give me more than just you're assumption that this is what she meant by "measurement." Give me a quote where she specifically says that universals only omit the QUANTITATIVE differences between the particulars, and I'll happily concede your point.

And yes, I know I've been asked to back up what I'm saying with a quote as well and I haven't. But this is a rather bold claim being made here. You're going to have to do better than, "Well, she said 'measurement.'"

Bryan M. White said...

And bear in mind here, I'm not saying that there might not be irredeemable flaws in the whole measurement omission idea. I'll even admit that "measurement" might not have been the best choice of words, and even if she DID mean "measurement" to include things like color or style or other qualitative specifics, lumping all this the heading of "measurement" could prove to be a bit cumbersome and problematic in the long run.

I get that. However, to refute the whole measurement omission idea by retorting, "Well, what about colors? Duh!" seems a bit like refuting Shakespeare's statement that "All the world's a stage" by harping on how the world differs in shape, size, and construction from an ACTUAL stage. Maybe it's not quite THAT pronounced of a difference, but have you considered that it's possible that you're just missing the point?

Samson Corwell said...

Her theory of concept formation is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive, correct?

Neil Parille said...

There is a new book called Concepts and their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology, edited by Gotthelf and Lennox.

The first essay is by Gotthelf defending Rand's theory of concept formation. On pages 28-29 he gets around to mentioning problems with a theory of abstractionism (he uses Geach's arguments) such as an inability to show how we acquire mathematical concepts for example.
He says wait till Pat Corvini's book comes out and get her ARI lectures.

Neil Parille said...

Here is a prior version of Gotthelf's essay.

http://www.bristol.ac.uk/metaphysicsofscience/naicpapers/gotthelf.pdf

The discussion I mention is at footnote 44.

Neil Parille said...

Oops, footnote 45.

Neil Parille said...

One problem I've noted with Rand's theory is that she doesn't explain (or even see it as a problem) how two people can use the same concept or word to refer to the same types of things.

Concept formation appears a bit more top down, with parents explaining to children how words are used. That a dog doesn't refer to all 4 legged house pets is something taught, not necessarily abstracted.

Neil Parille said...

It's sad that ITOE has been out for decades and we don't have a credible discussion of the apparent problems of measurement omission. And Objectivsts have been on notice since at least Matson's 84 essay in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand

___________________________

Can the notion of "omitted measurements" be carried out through a complete account of abstraction? (Even in Rand's presentation it gets a bit artificial-sounding when we come to propositions and the; and there are special problems concerning abstraction at higher levels: for instance, if particular measurements -- presumably spatial -- are omitted to get the concept "house," what is left over to discard in forming the concept "edifice"?

________

Gordon Burkowski said...

Grammarians have noted a failing which they call "false gentility": a usage that sounds good but is in fact incorrect. Saying "between you and I" instead of the correct "between you and me" is the classic example.

I think Rand's theory of concepts can justly be called a case of "false precision". Talking of "measurement", regardless what is meant by the term, promises some degree of objectivity, an ability to exactly compare different examples of the same concept. And it also implies that people who don't buy into the Randian definition must be trying to avoid a precise formulation.

Unfortunately, the promised precision vanishes when Rand's definition is examined critically. Sure, you can announce that "measurement" is being used in some allegedly technical sense - but when you do, what happens to those implications of exactness and objectivity?

Bryan M. White said...

I agree with you there, Gordon. "Measurement" has a nice, precise, mathematical ring to it, and I'm sure that appealed to her. It almost makes it sound like concepts are merely algebraic formulas and you just plug numerical values into the variables, and voila'....

I think though that if we expand the idea to include qualitative variables as well as quantitative ones (whether this was something Rand accounted for or not), that there might be SOMETHING to the idea? What are your guys' thoughts on that?

Gordon Burkowski said...

@BMW:

Does Rand "include qualitative variables as well as quantitative ones"? The answer is yes. She once put to herself the question: "Can you measure love?" Her answer: "And how!"

As usual, however, the reality is a good deal more problematic than the rhetoric. Yes, anyone can prize someone or something above everything else: in other words, everyone has a "top value", to use Rand's words.

However, by itself this is just another way of identifying a high subjective preference. Rand goes far beyond this. Apparently, she would also argue that a rational person's high values will be ones that any other rational person will also inevitably value. That reasoning led to her splitting with friends who liked Beethoven or the Impressionists. . .

Years ago, someone humorously proposed that beauty should be measured using the "millihelen" - defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. So much for qualitative measurements. . . :)

Gordon Burkowski said...

@BMW:

Does Rand "include qualitative variables as well as quantitative ones"? The answer is yes. She once put to herself the question: "Can you measure love?" Her answer: "And how!"

As usual, however, the reality is a good deal more problematic than the rhetoric. Yes, anyone can prize someone or something above everything else: in other words, everyone has a "top value", to use Rand's words.

However, by itself this is just another way of identifying a high subjective preference. Rand goes far beyond this. Apparently, she would also argue that a rational person's high values will be ones that any other rational person will also inevitably value. That reasoning led to her splitting with friends who liked Beethoven or the Impressionists. . .

Years ago, someone humorously proposed that beauty should be measured using the "millihelen" - defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. So much for qualitative measurements. . . :)

gregnyquist said...

I'm certainly no expert on Rand's measurement omission idea, but I highly doubt that she meant "measurement" to always be taken in a literal, quantitative sense.

A close reading suggests that she did mean it in a literal, quantitative sense. Rand wrote: "The basic principle of concept formation (which states that the omitted measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity) is the equivalent of the basic principle of algebra, which states that algebraic symbols must be given some numerical value, but may be given any value."

When dealing with "concepts of consciousness," Rand kept to the literal view of measurement by making the following distinction: "Teleological measurement deals, not with cardinal, but with ordinal numbers." In other words, Rand, instead of accepting the existence of qualitative differences and arguing that her measurement theory is "only metaphorical," contends (without explicitly saying so) that there is no real distinction between quantitative and qualitative (at least as far as "omission" is concerned), and that what some people regard as immeasurable (like "love," for instance) is actually measurable through ordinal ranking.

Incidentally, I find it implausible that Rand would have been pleased with the idea that her measurement-omission theory, which is supposed to solve the very problem which sent modern philosophy off the rails, is only "metaphorical"! One problem with metaphors is that they can't be refuted. A metaphor can ever be strictly right or wrong; only more or less apt.



Daniel Barnes said...

Samson:
>Her theory of concept formation is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive, correct?

My read of it says it's both.

Descriptive in that it supposedly describes a unique human faculty.

Prescriptive in that if you don't use as directed, Terrible Things Will Happen!

Gordon Burkowski said...

"Prescriptive in that if you don't use as directed, Terrible Things Will Happen!"

Bingo.

Rand is very good at inducing a sort of intellectual hypochondria, causing Objectivists to sincerely believe that persons who don't embrace her views must be panic-stricken losers incapable of either decisive action or clear conviction.

The ultimate echo chamber.

Samson Corwell said...

In response to Neil Parille:
Well, somebody had to realize the similarities at some piint in order for it to be taught.

Neil Parille said...

Rand did seem to be setting forth a psychological theory about how people form concepts. Some objectivists deny this, however.

Samson Corwell said...

In response to Neil Parille:
Well, isn't calling it a "psychological theory" kind of redundant? I mean, psychology is about the mind and concept formation is done by the mind.

Neil Parille said...

@SC

Some Objectivists claim that Rand was not giving a description of how the mind forms concepts; rather, she was explaining what a properly formed concept is.

rick ronsavelle said...

Is Rand claiming that measurement omission is her innovation?

From "Human Destiny" (book, 1947) p. 159: "Man begins by imagining, in other words creating, an ideal ball endowed with the geometrical properties of the real ball butextended to the limit, that is, attaining absolute perfection. He attributes to it only the properties which characterize its shape, and eliminates those which characterize its substance, i.e. color,
hardness,weight, elasticity, for these qualities can be found in other bodies having a different shape. He invents another name, which no longer evokes any idea of material properties: the sphere."

Eliminating [omitting] "color, hardness, weight, elasticity" sure sounds like measurement omission.

This omission stuff sounds like epistemology 1A. Was it that hard to figure out?

Daniel Barnes said...

If you think about it, measurement omission leads to a subjectivist Plato: you are left with an object (a concept) that has no physical properties (i.e. anything measurable), but still exists (abstractly, in the human mind). Incidentally, shouldn't cutting out all of an object's physical properties count as "severing" it from reality? Yet somehow this process escapes Randian rhetorical condemnation.

Anonymous said...

Jetton essay in essence says that Rand was incorrect in her wording and use of mathematic terms.
He does not invalidate her theory of concept formation in that concepts are formed by individual in an autodidactive manner by abstraction from observation of enities. His refutation does not lead to saying concepts are the words one learns from others and meaning is derived by plugging those words into some formal logic matrix.