Sunday, December 31, 2006

Some Holiday Reading

I'll be away from a computer most of the time over the next couple of weeks, though Greg may be posting if the mood takes him. So meantime here's a little New Year reading: David Ramsay Steele's "Alice In Wonderland", supposedly a review of Barbara Branden's "The Passion Of Ayn Rand" but really just an excuse to open up a big ol' can of his particular Libertarian brand of whup-ass on Rand and Objectivism as a whole. Here's a small sample:
"The true plot of Atlas Shrugged is: how some good-looking individuals were saved by coming to agree in every particular with Rand, and how everyone else was eternally damned."

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 2

In an earlier post, Rand's argument for why man needs an "objective" and "rational" code of values was examined. We turn to the next argument in Rand, the argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which goals are evaluated, and we immediately find ourselves in great difficulty. In a strict sense, Rand presented no argument -- or at least no strictly logically argument that could be evaulated. Instead, we get a series of disparate, elliptical suggestions:

(1) "The fact that living entitities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value."
(2) "Only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, makes the existence of values possible."
(3) "Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself."
(4) "Epistemologically, the concept of value is genetically dependent on the concept of life."

Out of these statements, or the handful of others associated with this argument, you will never logically derive the conclusion that life is the ultimate value. If, however, you can accept proposition 3, you should have little trouble accepting Rand's conclusion, because proposition 3 merely restates Rand's conclusion in other terms. Let's examine it a little more closely: "Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end of itself." Now in proposition 2, Rand equates the phrase "end in life" with "ultimate value." And since "metaphysics," for Rand, is simply that which pertains to reality or existence, we can translate proposition 3 as follows: "In reality, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself." But that's her conclusion! Nor does bringing in the epistemologically angle help Rand extricate herself from her difficulties. So what if the concept of value is genetically dependent on the concept of life? In the first place, if by "genetically" Rand means you can't form the concept of value without first forming the concept of life, it's not clear this is true. But even if, per impossible, it were true, it certainly doesn't establish that life is the ultimate value. How a person arrives at a concept cannot prove any matter of fact beyond some fact about how people arrive at concepts.

To sum up: Rand's "arguments," so-called, on behalf of her contention that life is the ultimate value remain a hopeless muddle.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Light Posting Weeks

The bustling ARCHN headquarters is on skeleton staff during the holidays, so posting will be light. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

Friday, December 22, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"The utility of Objectivism depends on how the individual uses Rand's ideas. If he uses Rand's principles merely as a vague form of inspiration, then he may profit from them. If, on the other hand, he tries to apply Rand's principles in a narrow, excessively literal sense to specific problems in everyday life, he is likely to get himself into trouble." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p355

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Journal of Ayn Rand Studies - Fall 2006

The Fall edition of Chris Sciabarra's "Journal of Ayn Rand Studies" has finally been published. It contains, among other interesting articles, my reply to Seddon's critique of ARCHN, wherein I, in effect, restate the case against Rand. Using evidence compiled by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists, I challenge not merely Rand's view of man, but also her epistemology, particularly her overestimation of the role of logic in efficacious thinking. Seddon responds in turn, offering a surprisingly feeble rebutal.

In the next few weeks I will offer brief commentary on some of these articles, particularly as the relate to important issues of Randian criticism.

Friday, December 15, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"In reading over the remarks about sex scattered through the Objectivist literature, I cannot help thinking that philosophy and sex do not mix well. Most philosophers, as soon as they begin hatching abstruse theories about sex, wind up spouting some of the most ridiculous nonsense on record. Consider the following gem from Leonard Peikoff's treatise on Objectivism:
'Proper human sex...requires men and women of stature, in regard to both moral character and metaphysical outlook.' (OPAR, p348)
(If) a person of high stature in moral character and metaphysical outlook is somone who lives in accordance with Objectivist principles, Peikoff could have expressed what he wanted to say much more clearly by merely insisting that in order to have proper sex, you must be an Objectivist."
- Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p267

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ARCHN Quote of the Week

"If we define philistinism as the incapacity or unwillingness to appreciate and admire great art, then there can be little doubt Ayn Rand was a philistine...Rand only cared for art in the abstract sense. Concrete instances of art she usually disliked. In this sense, she was like those humanitarians who love mankind in the abstract yet never fail to mistreat and oppress actual individuals." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p333

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 1

Rand's theory of morality is the best refuted of her theories. Since there's been much wrangling about her theory in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to reexamine Rand's arguments and point out what's wrong with them. Rand actually presents several arguments, each devoted to a specific problem. These can be summarized as follows:

(1) "Objective" and "rational" argument for why man needs a code of values based on reason;
(2) Argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which all goals are evaluated;
(3) Argument for how happiness is achieved.

The term "argument" is here used rather loosely. Rand offers no clear-cut, formal argument for the last two positions, merely a few vague and rather puzzling hints. Let's start with the first one for why man needs a code of values based on reason. It could be summarized as follows:

(P1) Man is a living organism that faces the fundamental alternative of life and death
(P2) Life requires a specific course of action to sustain itself
(P3) Because of the need for unit-economy, the course of action required to sustain man's life must be reduced to a series of intelligible principles
(P4) Reason is the only means of figuring out the series of principles required to sustains man's life
(C) Man needs a code of values based on reason

Now I have given Rand a little help here. She does not explicitly mention the last two premises, but they are clearly things she presupposes and explicitly endorsed in other places. I will leave the logical analysis of this argument to others. I simply note that, while the first two premises are largely true (indeed, the second is a truism), the last two are dubious. A much more plausible theory states that ethical theories depend, at least in part, on tacit knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated in explicit principles. (See Hayek or M. Polanyi.) Philosophers who reduce morality to a handful of consciously articulated principles end up with ethical maxims that are too broad and leave way too much wiggle room for casuistry.

The fourth premises presents particularly serious difficulties, because it's not clear what "reason" is. If we define it analytically (i.e., as that which is required to find out the principles needed to sustain life), then the statement assumes the very point at issue. If we define it as a process whereby, through observation and "induction," one creates premises and then uses logic to deduce conclusions from those premises, then the proposition is empirically false: that view of knowledge acquisition, originally formulated by Aristotle and the scholastics, is wrong. Cognitive scientists have found no evidence that knowledge works that way, and a great deal of evidence that it works in other ways (i.e., largely through a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error testing).

Note how the first two premises, which are the most plausible and easy to defend, are the only ones Rand explicitly enunciates. This is a common trick of rationalizing philosophers: The rationalizer parades the obvious, as if the argument depends only on that, when, in reality, it also depends on dubious presuppositions that are never acknowledged or explicitly stated.

I will examine the other arguments in later posts.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt.1: 'Contextual' Certainty

The first in an occasional series that translates Objectivist jargon into plain language.

"Contextual certainty" = "Definitely maybe"