Monday, June 29, 2020

Molyneux and the Objectivist Tradition 2

UPB 2: Foundationalism and logic. Central to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is the largely unsubstantiated assertion that the “objectivity of reality,” along with human knowledge in general, require “validation”; and that in the absence of this validation, human beings become cognitively helpless and hence defenseless against power-lusting authoritarians. Once, however, knowledge is properly “validated,” the masses of people in the civilized world will once again regard their senses, their “reason,” and their minds as reliable guides to reality, which will lead them to embrace “rational” moral and political ideals (i.e., Objectivism).

The view that human knowledge, before it can be viewed as secure and reliable, must be “validated” (or “proved”) is known as foundationalism. Objectivism represents an extreme form of this doctrine. Molyneux, in his book Universally Preferable Behavior, attempts to prove or validate a universal rational secular morality. The inability of previous philosophers to “define an objective, rational, secular and scientific ethical system” Molyneux nicknames the “beast”:

This “beast” is the illusion that morality must forever be lost in the irrational swamps of gods and governments, enforced for merely pragmatic reasons, but forever lacking logical justification and clear definition. This “beast” is the fantasy that virtue, our greatest joy, our deepest happiness, must be cast aside by secular grown-ups, and left in the dust to be pawed at, paraded and exploited by politicians and priests – and parents…. This beast has brought down many great heroes, from Socrates to Plato to Augustine to Hume to Kant to Rand. The cost to mankind has been enormous. (7)

Sadly, none of these assertions are backed by anything that would come close to qualifying as empirical evidence. Rand and Molyneux may give lip-service to empiricism, but in their ethical speculations they evince little awareness of the empirical difficulties of the subject they set out to tackle. They seem to operate under the assumption that matters of fact can be determined by logical, moral, or rhetorical constructions. Consider, as an example of this, Molyneux’s statement about “extraordinary claims”:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. (9)
At first blush one might think Molyneux is paraphrasing David Hume or Pierre-Simon Laplace, but that’s not quite what he is doing. Hume and Laplace insisted that extraordinary claims must be supported or matched by extraordinary evidence. Molyneux insists on “extraordinary proof.” The distinction between “proof” and “evidence” is fundamental. Proof is a term referring to logic, discourse, and argument. It occupies an important place in the cognitive toolbox, but it is hardly the failsafe standard for evaluating claims about matters of fact that faux-rationalists like Rand and Molyneux typically assume.

Logical validity is no guarantee of truth. If just one of the premises of a syllogism is untrue, the truth even of a valid argument becomes compromised. Since the empirical truth of the premises of a syllogism can often be much more difficult to establish than the argument’s logical validity, the attempt to render logic as a criterion for ultimate truth about matters of fact is fraught with potential for abuses. Hence the dangers of rationalism.

Yet the problems with an over-reliance on logical proof go well beyond the issue of validity. Eager perhaps to strengthen their bias toward rationalism, Rand and Molyneux labor under the illusion that logic is a principle derived from the physical world, rather than a criterion of argument and discourse. According to Molyneux:

Fundamentally, the laws of logic are derived from the behavior of matter and energy, at least at the perceptual level. If I tell you to throw a ball both up and down at the same time, I am asking for the impossible, which you can easily test by attempting to fulfill my request. If I tell you to plough both the north field and the south field simultaneously, you will be unable to comply. If I demand that you turn a rose into a donkey, my demand will never be met.

In this passage Molyneux is guilty of committing a category error. Logic is a criterion for evaluating the validity of arguments. Logic could also be extended to discourse in general, especially in relation to the issue of consistency of meaning (i.e., “concepts”). Logic, however, is not a principle that is directly applicable, or derived from, the natural (i.e. physical) world. The examples Molyneux provides, such as throwing a ball both up down at the same time, or ploughing separate fields simultaneously, or turning roses into donkeys, are not impossible because they violate so-called “laws of logic.” They are impossible because the physical world doesn’t work that way. If the world really did follow (or exemplify) principles of logic, then we could determine matters of fact solely through logical deduction. Smoke could be deduced from fire; the oak tree could be deduced from the acorn; the butterfly could be deduced from the caterpillar. But knowledge of the natural world can’t be discovered in such a manner. The rationalist philosopher sitting in his armchair trying to deduce facts from so-called “axioms” would never be able discover any pertinent matter of fact concerning the material world. If he were shown a caterpillar, he could by no means demonstrate, via his extensive powers of deductive “reason,” that this creature would some day transform itself into a butterfly. Only experience will provide evidence for that particular miracle. Logic, by its own resources alone, is empty, vapid, uncreative—confined, as it manifestly is, to empirically vacuous excursions into the implications of meaning. The so-called truths of logic are merely truths about the nature of concepts; and when a closed logical system such as mathematics or geometry are shown to have applicability to the real world of material fact, that applicability is founded on empiricism, not logic.

The way faux-rationalists like Rand and Molyneux pontificate about the relation between logic and reality makes one suspect that they believe the only way logic can be shown to be “valid” is if logic is actually a principle of matter itself, holding empire over all of its motions and determining all of its laws. To believe such a thing involves a misapprehension of the relationship between the mind and the physical world. Worse, it is a thoroughly gratuitous and arbitrary assumption. Who decided that logic must be “validated”? Does that even make any sense? How can logic, the very criterion of validity, validate itself? Isn’t that a false ideal of knowledge? But more to the point, why should we tacitly assume that, in order for our methods of cognition to be applicable to the real world of fact, they must precisely replicate regularities found in nature? Must our knowledge mirror reality before we can consider it safe and true? Must the words on a page mirror the sounds made when uttering them? The fact is, knowledge is fundamentally symbolic: it is the representation of one mode of being (i.e., physical reality) given resonance and truth in another (i.e., consciousness).

Since proof, validation, logic are all principles applying to the nature of meaning, symbol, and representation, the view that knowledge in general needs to be somehow “proved” or “validated” is little more than a confusion between various modes of being. Proof is a standard applicable to syllogisms, argument, and discourse. When we talk about a matter of fact that has been “proved” we are only speaking metaphorically. Matters of fact can be observed, investigated, documented, and corroborated. They can’t be logically proved.

Foundationalism therefore constitutes an impossible ideal of epistemology. It seeks to give statements about matters of fact the same sense of irrefragability that a logically valid argument enjoys, and this is just not possible. Empirical knowledge doesn’t work that way. Logic merely establishes a consistency of meaning between an argument’s premises and its conclusion. In a very real sense, the conclusion of a valid argument is simply a restatement, in more apposite terms, of what already existed in the premises. Hence logic deals with the analysis of meaning, not the discovery of truth. If the premises of a syllogism are empirically true, then of course any valid conclusion must be empirically true as well, because it is essentially saying the same thing. For this reason, deductive syllogisms provide no new knowledge. They simply ferret out implications of the premises that may have gone unnoticed but may prove very useful in understanding the broader meaning of a series of statements about the real world of fact.

There is one other objection to foundationalism that deserves notice. Foundationalists like Rand and Molyneux would have us believe that validating knowledge and morality is of the utmost importance in preserving Western Civilization. Thus Molyneux claims, without offering a shred of relevant evidence, that the “failure to define objective and rational moral rules has cost hundreds of millions of human lives.” Really? And he knows this how?

Scientists who have studied how morality works in the real world have come to a very different conclusion. Psychological experiments strongly suggest that, when it comes to morality, intuitions come first and then rationalizations are concocted later to give a veneer of logic and reason to what originally is nothing of the sort. Since the ultimate foundation of ethical behavior are found in something non-rational, in something akin to a preference or sentiment, it is not something that can be reasoned with. “The ultimate intuitions on which ethics rests are not debatable, for they are not opinions we hazard but preferences we feel; and it can be neither correct nor incorrect to feel them,” is how George Santayana put it. And let’s face it. We know this is true from everyday experience. Whether it’s over politics, moral ideals, or even aesthetic tastes, the vast majority of people are rarely amenable to rational argument concerning anything that touches their deepest interests or passions. The conviction that somehow, if we could only come up with “better” or more “rational” arguments, that we could magically convince large numbers of people to come over to our moral and political points-of-view—what is that but the most outrageous hubris, rarely if ever justified in the real world of fact and disillusion?

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