Saturday, February 24, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 8: "Concepts"

"Concepts"= condensations of human knowledge, which also simultaneously transcend all human knowledge. They can never be overthrown - they are valid for all time. They exist only inside individual minds, but are also universal. (Yes, folks, it's a veritable all-you-can-eat-and-have-too cakefest!). Additionally, Rand hints that the true meaning of concepts can be properly determined only by superior men. In other words, Objectivism's version of Plato's Forms.

ARCHN Quotes of the Week 25/2/07

Double helping this week:

"Rand's account of the rise of statism in America indicates that she knew virtually nothing about how political institutions change and develop over time. She took it for granted that such institutions are determined by moral theory. Yet this is hardly the case. Moral theories rarely play a significant role in the evolution of political institutions. Like language, ettiquette, and jurisprudence, political institutions nearly always develop independently of the intentions, moral or otherwise, of those who created them." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p82

"The institutions of man are produced, not by following any sort of definite blueprint or philosophical theory, but by the minute efforts of a large number of individuals each of whom is seeking solutions to specific problems. Those solutions which prove the most useful over time tend to be imitated by others and soon spread throughout the entire social order. Those solutions which, on the other hand, lead to further problems will, over time, become less and less used. Thus a process analagous to Darwinian selection is found behind the formation of social institutions." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p95

Friday, February 23, 2007

Basic Fallacies of Objectivist Epistemology: The Mathematical Comparison

Rand's "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" is easily the worst thing she ever wrote. Rambling despite its brevity, almost comically incoherent despite its air of supreme intellectual confidence, and shamelessly fact-free despite its high-toned talk about grounding knowledge in observed reality, that she could consider the epistemological theories therein the "solution" upon which "the fate of human societies, of knowledge, of science, of progress and of every human life depends" is a testament to both her alarming overestimation of her abilities and the uncritical groupie-bubble Rand seems to have lived much of her later life in.

While there are boners on pretty much every page of the ITOE, they fortunately boil down to a smaller number of key fallacies. One of the most central is her notion that concepts must be as precisely constructed as mathematical equations. She makes much rhetorical hay over this alleged precision, and the equally alleged "disasters" that will result if anything so horrendous as an approximation creeps into man's automatized conceptualising. She claims that the validity of man's conceptual knowledge "depends on the precision of his concepts, which require as strict a precision of the definitions of mathematical terms." (ITOE, 65, emphasis mine).

This supposed precision of concepts leads to the demand for similar exactitude in the symbols that represent them i.e. words.. Words, Rand insists, must be properly treated "as concepts" with "exact meaning...never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality." (ITOE, 20-21). Thus the writer or speaker should use words as precisely as a mathematician uses his numbers or algebraic symbols.

But this results in a basic fallacy, for Rand doesn't seem to realise that words and numbers are two very different things. Words cannot have anything like "as strict a precision of the definitions of mathematical terms." This is because unlike words, numbers are almost entirely empty of content. This is their great benefit; as a trade-off for this lack of content we gain total precision and the ability to apply them to almost anything. Words, on the other hand, are content-rich, saturated in millenia of cultural development which has left them full of ambiguities, shades, hues, meanings and histories of meanings. The trade-off for this richness, however, is a concomitant loss of precision.

But don't take my word for it - the difference between the two can be easily demonstrated. If I give you a number you've never encountered before - say, 73647789990.871001 - you don't even require a definition to know what it means. It is precise, but empty.

However, should I give you a word you've never encountered before - say, "passalorynchite" - you will need to look it up in a dictionary if you are to have any hope of knowing its meaning. While it certainly refers to something, its meaning is far richer, and thus more layered and complex. As Karl Popper remarks, words are always "necessarily vague" to a greater or lesser degree, and instead of expecting exact precision when using them, we should be careful to remain "within their penumbra."

Thus the belief that words can, in effect, have "as strict a precision of the definitions of mathematical terms" is a fundamental error. This error is part and parcel of another fundamental error, Rand's view of definitions, which we will examine in a later post.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 7: "Contextual Absolute"

"Contextual absolute" = Oxymoron. Not in fact an 'absolute' at all. If you consider this sort of thing an epochal contribution to philosophy, you might also be interested in this large bridge in Brooklyn that I have for sale at an excellent price.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 6: "A is A"

"A is A" =
i) Shorthand for the Law of Identity
ii) Buzzphrase, the mere invocation of which is believed to validate any argument, or invalidate any opposing argument.

Example usage:
"Those who oppose the war in Iraq inherently deny that 'A is A'"
"Those who support the war in Iraq inherently deny that 'A is A'"

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

JARS: Degutis' "Deconstructing Postmodern Xenophelia"

The title of Degutis' essay is a mouthful, to be sure, but it is an excellent piece -- quite the best in the entire issue Fall 2006 issue of JARS. Degultis' is a Lithuanian classical liberal who understands all too well the threat posed by leftist sentiments to Western Civilization. He argues that "the agenda [of leftism] is counterproductive, it's 'progressive' goals are retrogressive, and its implementation would result in the destruction of the West." Degultis proceeds with a subtle, nuanced analysis of the main ideas of leftist thought -- an analysis that is devastating precisely because it avoids the sort of self-serving, facile distortions and crude hyperbole that are the stock and trade of the denizens of ARI. The only question one might have about Degutis' essay is, What does it have to do with Rand? It never mentions Rand, nor does it avail itself of any of Rand's singular conceptual devices. So how should we account for its inclusion in JARS? Perhaps it is there because it expresses opposition to the radical left, which Rand also vehemently -- though, unfortunately, not as intelligently -- opposed as well.

Whatever may be the reason, I doubt that Rand herself would have approved of it, because it makes distinctions which would have horrified her objectivist proprieties. Hence, we find Degutis distinguishing between Christian altruism, which confines itself to the sphere of voluntary relations, with secular altruism, which "is open and limitless, subsuming under its cover all the wretched of the earth." I cannot imagine Rand would have been pleased by the suggestion that some forms of altruism may not after all be evil.

Heal Thyself!

Amusingly in light of the embarrassing standards of debate Objectivists regularly demonstrate here, Greg Perkins over at Noodlefood enlightens us as to what he considers the "ground rules for rational discussion."

Sample quote:
"Thinking over the common ways things go off the rails while talking with non-Objectivists, I put together the following to try to set expectations, keep things on the rails longer, encourage more seriousness and intellectual honesty, scare away the unworthy, and so on."

Some of the comments are priceless too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Anti-ARCHN Quote of the Week 14/2/07

"It's not that I can't respond to your challenge to show the fallacy in your book, it's that I decline to respond."
- Objectivist commenter John Donohue

ARCHN Quote of the Week 13/2/07

"For Objectivists, the term reason is a sort of mystical entity whose purpose is to assure them that they are right."
- Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p153

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hoisted from Comments: Nyquist Replies to a Critic

...even though that critic, one Mr John Donohue, has point-blank refused to read "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature"! Only in Objectivism...;-) Still, we're used to that by now. Extract from this thread.

Mr. Donohue has objected to the following description of Rand's metaphysics, which he regards as a twisted misstatement of Rand's position:

"Although acknowledging that realism cannot be proved, she (Rand) did believe it could be validated through the use of several axioms."

I'm rather surprised that Mr. Donahue should object to this. The distinction between proof and validation in regards to the Objectivist axioms is taken straight from Peikoff. In Objectivism, these axioms don't prove anything, but are regarded as the basis of proof. But they are said to validate certain notions, such as causality and "contradictions don't exist in reality."

Mr. Donahue: "You claim that Objectivists deduce facts of reality from the axioms (wrong) and claim the axioms as being 'mere tautology.'"

Well of course Rand does deduce facts of reality from her axioms. Causality and the view that "contradictions don't exist in reality" are both assertions about matters of fact that are deduced from the axioms. As for the claim of tautology, I don't see how that one can be evaded either, since a tautology is defined as a statement that's true no matter what the actual truth values of the predicate and subject are: in other words, its truth-value is independent of the way things are. "A is A" and "Existence exists" are clearly tautological statements.

Mr. Donahue: "Deluded that you have gotten her in the corner, you simply assert that Rand has rationalized her system around her personal 'mess' and that explains everything."

No, this is a mischaracterization of why I have charged Rand with rationalization. This is an important point that bears greater scrutiny. My charge of rationalization is not made lightly. It is based on three very well supported premises:

1. Rand's view of man, particularly her conceptualization of her so-called ideal man, is largely based on notions about man and the human condition that don't square with reality.

2. From evidence compiled from Rand's letters, journals, and life, she appears to have been relunctant to face up to the empirical challenges to her ideal man theory--so much so that it would not be exaggeration to claim that she evaded important facts about human nature.

3. It is obvious from Rand's life that she was a very brilliant woman who could have easily understood the important facts about human nature which she refused to accept.

Now the only way I can see my way to explaining these three premises is by assuming that Rand was guilty of rationalization. The only other possible explanation is that Rand was lying, and don't regard that as very plausible.

To sum up: if those three premises (and they're well supported by the facts) then Rand's theory of human nature is almost certainly the product of rationalization.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 5: "Social Metaphysician"

"Social Metaphysician" = someone who cares what non-Objectivists think about them.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt.4: 'Second-hander'

"Second-hander" =
i) someone who thinks the opinions of others* has some value
ii) someone who thinks the 250,000 years of human culture, learning, customs and institutions prior to Objectivism has some value.

*There is one important exclusion: adopting the opinions of Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff in their entirety does not mean you are a 'second-hander'. It means you are an uncompromising individualist.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 3: "Floating Abstraction"

An occasional series that translates Objectivist jargon into plain language.

"Floating abstraction" = Buzz-phrase applied to any theoretical objection to Randian doctrine.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 2: "Concrete-bound"

An occasional series that translates Objectivist jargon into plain language.

"Concrete-bound" = Buzz-phrase applied to any practical or empirical objection to Randian doctrine.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

ARCHN Quote of the Week 8/2/07

"Now that Rand has passed from the scene, it will be interesting to observe whether any artists of genuine distinction ever emerge from the Objectivist movement. To the extent that Rand's influence still persists, I would regard the prospects for Objectivist-inspired art as extremely slim. For it was not merely Rand's aesthetic prejudices which subverted any effort on the part of her followers to develop a viable artistic movement; the principles she devised to justify her prejudices also played a part in this subversion. An Objectivist artistic movement, to the extent it actually tries to follow Objectivist aesthetic principles, would be a veritable contradiction in terms." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN, p344

Saturday, February 03, 2007

JARS: Seddon's "Rand and Rescher on Truth"

Fred Seddon once again reinterprets Rand in light of philosophers Rand wouldn't have approved of. The philosopher this time is Nicholas Rescher, often regarded as kind of "pragmatic idealist." Rescher wrote about what he regarded as the four major theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, intuitionistic and pragmatic. Correspondence means agreement with facts; coherence means logical agreement where the truthfulness of a proposition is judged by its implicit coherence with other (presumably true) propositions; intuitionistic truths are either those given in consciousness (i.e., "primative" datum) or primative inferences from these datum (Seddon equates them with Rand's self-evident truths); and pragmatic means that a theory has acceptable practical consequences. Seddon's thesis is that "Rand's theory of truth incorporates all four aspects of Rescher's"

Commentary: Seddon is rights about Rand, but some of the examples he gives are wrong. For example, placing Rand's self-evident truths under the intutitionistic category (I would argue that they go under the coherence category). Of course, the reason for Seddon's mistake here is that what he describes as the intuitionistic theory is a false theory: primitative datum cannot be regarded as making up a theory of truth, if for no other reason than that no primative datum can ever be regarded as knowledge. A primitative datum, stripped of all the presuppositions of intelligence, would provide us with little more than the solipsism of the present moment. For it is these presuppositions that give meaning to the primitative datum in the first place; which leads to my second criticism: namely, that claims of truth involve elements of both correspondence and coherence, and also of a tacit intuitive component (different from Rescher's primitive-datum intuitive), and finally of a pragmatic (or rather experimental) aspect. Does Rand accept the four components of truth of this revised theory? Up to a point, she does: she obviously supports the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic components (for the reasons Seddon gives, among others); and she also supports, implicitly at least, a tacit-knowledge intuitionist component of sorts (i.e., her "automatic knowledge), though her version of the theory is completely inadequate, as she is holds a very deep prejudice against both tacit knowledge and what is commonly refered to as "intuition." What Rand doesn't accept is that truth claims must inevitably use all four of these elements, especially the intuitionist. She would claim that truth doesn't require the tacit-intuitionist element, that tacit presuppositions and tacit conjectures are not necessary to arrive at truth.