UPB 4: The necessary premises of debating 1. Molyneux’s sophistry reaches its apex when he commences on the thankless task of “validating” his theory.
“Universally preferable behavior” must be a valid concept,” [insists Molyneux, because] “if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behavior is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behavior. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behavior. Thus universally preferable behavior – or moral rules – must be valid. (35-36)
This is such a mass of confusion and unsubstantiated assertion that it will take a bit of effort to sort all out. I can identify at least three serious problems with Molyneux’s formulations:
Problem No. 1: the fallacy of the valid concept. Molyneux seeks to establish the “validity” of the concept of Universally Preferable Behavior. This mania for “validity” is something Molyneux inherits from Ayn Rand. It’s part of foundationalist mindset discussed in a previous post [link]. But it goes well beyond that. It’s central to Rand’s entire faux-rationalist methodology. Instead looking to the empirical world to discover truths about matters of fact, she tries to “validate” the ideas in her head. Molyneux is merely the foremost exponent of this method on the contemporary scene.
Technically speaking, validity does not and cannot apply to concepts. Concepts are items of description, scraps of meaning, datum of representation. They are neither valid nor invalid, true or false, good or bad. In and of themselves, they do not constitute knowledge, but, like the daubs of paint on the artist’s palette, only rise to cognitive significance when used to create a mental representation of some aspect of reality. Even then the truth of this representation is determined, not by any essential veracity or validity in the concepts themselves, nor by their intrinsic logic, but to the degree to which they aptly describe the object in reality they are supposed to represent. If the artist uses the color blue to paint the hair of a blonde girl, he is guilty, not of using an “invalid” or “untrue” paint, but of using the wrong color to portray the girl’s tresses.
Rand’s demand that concepts need to be “validated” before they can be used to describe matters of fact is as fatuous as claiming that an artist needs to “validate” his paints before embarking on a portrait of an enchanting female. Questions of truth only arise when we use our concepts (or the artist uses his paints) in assertions (or paintings) representing matters of fact. The conscious awareness of an idea is not knowledge, it is dream or reverie. Knowledge only begins when the idea in your mind is assumed to be a symbol representing matters of fact existing beyond the ken of your conscious awareness. Intelligence then takes this symbol and uses it in propositions—theories if you will—describing matters of fact. The truth of such propositions is determined, not by the intrinsic “validity” of the concepts in which it is stated, but by the degree to which the proposition accords to empirical (i..e, factual) reality; and that is determined, not by logical analysis, but through empirical investigation.
Now the reason why Rand and Molyneux place so much emphasis on “validity,” rather than empirical truth, is because they espouse theories that resist empirical verification. If a theory I wish to advance about matters of fact can easily be supported by the relevant evidence, I’m not going to waste time providing overly-speculative arguments on behalf of the “validity” of the concepts through which my theory is expressed; no, I will simply point at the relevant evidence and let the facts speak for themselves (and facts are often more persuasive than arguments). This mania for “validation” which we find in both Rand and Molyneux forms a central part of their faux-rationality. In practical terms, the obsession with “validity” leads to rationalistic speculation, which is to say, truth-claims, whether empirical, moral or otherwise, are tested on the basis of various pseudo-logical constructions, combined with misleading or eccentric interpretations of relevant, and sometimes not so relevant, facts. Since no truths about the empirical world can in fact be tested in this manner, those guilty of resorting to such tactics can hardly be described as “objective,” “rational,” or “realistic.” They are, more accurately, sophists—although they may not be consciously aware of the extent to which they have succumbed to this bad mode of cerebration.
Molyneux’s UPB cannot be empirically verified because it’s not fundamentally a theory about matters of fact. It’s a theory principally concerned with judging the “validity” of moral rules, i.e., how human beings ought to behave, which is hardly the same thing as determining truth-claims about the empirical world. Nevertheless, in defiance of obvious differences, Molyneux can’t stop insisting on the analogy between factual truth and ethical propriety (i.e., between is statements and ought statements). “The methodology for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same as the methodology for judging and proving any other theory,” Molyneux insists. Exactly the same? How can this be? Since ought statements are very different from is statements, how can Molyneux assume that the methodology applicable to determining matters of fact is “exactly” the same as the methodology to determine how people ought to behave? There is nothing in the nature of the universe that guarantees that a methodology useful in one domain of experience must be applicable to all domains. This isn’t’ even true when it comes to determining matters of fact. Not all of our knowledge is discovered exclusively via the scientific method. In everyday life, people tend to rely far more on experience and intuition than on science and “rationality.” Claiming that all knowledge must ape the methodology of physical science is a manifestation of what some have called “scientism”—an ugly word for an ugly thing.
Problem No. 2: Self-defeating arguments. The faux-rationalist is at his best when he can advance methodological tropes which, to most sensible people, have the appearance of rationality, but which on further inspection are shown to be sophistical. What Molyneux calls “self-defeating arguments” have the aura of rationality without the substance.
Molyneux defines self-defeating arguments as follows:
In general, any theory that contradicts itself in the utterance cannot be valid. It does not require external disproof, since it disproves itself. We do not need to examine every nook and cranny in the universe to determine that a “square circle” does not exist. The very concept is self-contradictory, and thus disproves itself in the utterance. (31)
In this passage, Molyneux conflates logical validity with empirical verification. Once more I have to remind everyone: logical validity applies to arguments, not to the factual world. Thus logical validity cannot be regarded as a fail-safe guarantee of factual truth. If a theory is stated as an argument and that argument proves invalid, the conclusion of the theory could still turn out to be factually true. A couple of examples will make this more obvious.
Molyneux contends that the phrase “I don’t exist” is self-defeating because the individual asserting it must obviously exist. How else could the statement be made if there existed no individual to make it? But this is not the way either arguments or logical validity work. Consider the following argument.
Human beings don’t exist.
I am a human being.
Therefore, I don’t exist.
This is a perfectly valid argument. That the conclusion is factually untrue has no bearing on the argument’s logical validity. Nor is the fact that I must exist in order to make the argument of any logical relevance either. Arguments consist of premises leading to a conclusion. Since my actual existence is not a premise in the argument, it cannot be included in any examination of the argument’s validity. Logic applies to arguments, to syllogisms, to dialectic, not to extraneous considerations such as the individual’s existential status or the physical requisites of making arguments.
Consider the following astonishing assertion from Universally Preferable Behavior:
Given that every human action – including making philosophical statements – is chosen in preference to every other possible action, arguing that preferences do not exist requires a preference for arguing that preferences do not exist, which is a self-contradictory statement. (33)
This is an argument ad hominem. The motivational requisites for arguing are irrelevant to the logical validity of any specific argument. This can be illustrated in the following syllogism:
Innate psychological proclivities do not exist.
Preferences are an innate psychological proclivity.
Preference don’t exist.
The conclusion of this argument is empirically false, but the argument itself is perfectly valid. To establish that preferences exist, one needs to examine the relevant evidence in the empirical world. Attempting to establish facts on the basis of sophistical faux-logical constructions is nothing to the purpose.
The self-defeating argument trope (SDAT) is one of the many sophistical stock-in-trade tricks of speculative rationalism. It is the attempt to determine matters of fact through logical and pseudo-logical constructions. Molyneux trots out several obviously false statements, such as “I don’t exist,” “Language has no meaning,” or “Preferences don’t exist” which he then he claims are “invalid” (by which he presumably means empirically false) because they are “self-defeating.” In short, he uses obvious falsehoods to give his self-defeating argument trope in aura of rational justification. If it you can use it to refute statements like “I don’t exist” or “Language doesn’t have any meaning,” think how else it could be applied!
Yet this is not the worst of the self-defeating argument trope. When used to “refute” more complicated philosophical contentions, such as determinism, eliminative materialism, and atheism, SDAT refutations nearly always commit additional fallacies, such as assuming the point at issue or using the ambiguity of words to create what is essentially a strawman argument. We can find examples of the straw-manning even in the very simple statements Molyneux uses as examples of SDAT’s. When Molyneux claims that the assertion “I don’t exist” is self-defeating, he is assuming that this denial of self-existence should be taken literally. But since it is fairly obvious from common experience that people don’t always say what they mean—that they often, in order make a point, engage in hyperbole and poetic license—how can he be so sure that the statement is meant literally? Why, after all, would anyone claim not to exist? If we wish to criticize an individual’s statement, shouldn’t we first try to figure out what this person is actually trying to say? Or are we merely refuting words, regardless of what might have been meant by the person using them?
As any dictionary will abundantly demonstrate, words have multiple meanings, and complete sentences, which contain at least several words, may have many more. When someone asserts, “I don’t exist,” it is important to figure out what is being meant by so strange an assertion. The term I can be taken in several senses. It might refer to the actual person—body and soul—of a specific human individual; in which case, the declaration “I don’t exist” is manifestly untrue. But it could also mean the individual’s conception of himself. Since self-knowledge is often partial and woefully inadequate, it would hardly constitute much of an exaggeration for the individual to claim that his conception of himself, being largely false and meretricious, doesn’t actually exist. This word exist may also be taken in multiple senses. Some people regard life as a kind of dream in which everything experienced, including the self, is illusory. While such a view is deeply eccentric and clearly false, it is hardly the thin, self-refutable thing of Molyneux’s imagination.
Now if even a doctrine as absurd as the denial of self-existence can, if interpreted more generously, escape self-refutation, what are we to say of the less absurd doctrines which Molyneux attempts to refute using the notorious SDAT? At one point in Universally Preferable Behavior, we find Molyneux making the following observation:
Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist; it is innately self-contradictory. (40)
Can this possibly be true? Is it even plausible?