Friday, March 30, 2007

JARS: "The 'Grotesque' Dichotomies Still Unbeautified"

Gregory Browne, in this essay, replies to criticism of his book Necessary Factual Truth, a work which attempts to combine Misesian apriorism with Randian scholasticism. Rand, argues Browne, essentially pursues the same rationalistic method as the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. She can do so "because Objectivists believe that all facts except those resulting from human free will choices are ... 'necessary' and that no truths [can be considered] 'non-factual' [i.e., the analytical-synthetic dichotomy is wrong]." This allows Rand to "do ethics the way she does" while harmonizing Rand's economics "with the Austrian economics of Ludwig von Mises."

As an exegesis of the Peikoff/Rand view of the analytical-synthetic dichotomy, Long's analysis is on target. Objectivists reject this dichotomy because they want to justify the rationalistic methodology whereby matters of fact are determined through the manipulation of logical structures. Despite Rand's and Peikoff's lip-service to empiricism and the scientific method, in their actual philosophical works, they tend toward a kind of scholastic rationalism. Hence the axioms, the definition-mongering, the claim that concept formation is at least in some respects analogous to algebra, and the headlong plunge into the dubious quicksands of Aristotelean essentialism.

Having not read Browne's book, I cannot say how convincing (or unconvincing) his defense of necessary factual truths. However, I would be surprised if any convincing arguments could be brought on behalf of the notion of necessary truth. The best that has been said on this issue was provided by George Santayana: "Tradition is rich in maxims called necessary truths, such as 2+2=4, that space and time are infinitely divisible, that everything has a cause, and that God, or the most real of beings, necessarily exists. Many such propositions may be necessary, by virtue of the definitions given to their terms; many may be true, in that the facts of nature confirm them; and some may be both necessary logically and true materially, but even then the necessity will come from one quarter and the truth from another."

In other words, nature (or, for theistically inclined, God) determines what is true, not logic! Here's the problem with logic: There are an infinite number of logical (i.e., necessary) truths only a small fraction of which are exemplified in reality. So how is anyone is supposed to distinguish between the factually true necessary truths and the factually untrue necessary truths? Answer: the best way to determine between the two is by consulting the relevant facts! Evidence, particularly scientific evidence, is the best way of determining factual truth (though not the only way).

What gives the sort of apriori or scholastic rationalism advocated by Rand and Mises the aura of plausibility is that in some circumstances, matters of facts are so complicated that they cannot be determined by the usual logico-experimental methods of science. This is where logical speculation, as long is it is controlled by a strong sense of the elemental facts, can prove useful. Hence the need for the sort of economic reasoning advocated by Mises and Frank Knight, among others. However, we must be aware of the important limitations of this method. Knight calls deductive economic reasoning "the method of successive approximations" and insists that "without empirical correction to real situations" economists are likely to run into trouble.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

JARS: "Ayn Rand as Literary Mentor"

Kirsti Minsaas provides a short review of Erika Holzer's Ayn Rand: My Fiction Writing Teacher. In the course of her review, Minsaas indulges in a short discussion of Holzer's and Rand's "shared interest in larger-than-life heroes." Minsaas, as far as I can tell, shares Holzer's perspective about the "objective" need for "romantic heroes," and even goes so far as to describe the type of hero projected in Rand's novels as "sophisticated." So here we have three women--Rand, Holzer, and Minsaas--all expressing sympathy for "larger-than-life" heroes of the Randian variety. Could it be that Randian heroism is a product of peculiar sort of female sentimentalism? I personally don't see anything heroic in Rand's heroes. They are not even gentlemen, as no gentlemen would go around raping women (even when the women want it), dynamiting newly completed housing projects, engaging in piracy and petulant economic sabotage, and spouting self-righteous ideological rhetoric. The Randian hero is an ideologue par excellence, which is another way of saying that he is a man without any real sense of honor.

Minsaas' review also touches upon an even less agreeable subject: Rand's "sense of life" construct, which constitutes one of Rand's very worst theories. Great literature seeks to illuminate the perplexities of the human condition. In the pursuit of this end, literature must sometimes grapple with the tragic side of existence--that is to say, it must cover such things as sickness, pain, infidelity, death, and evil. Rand's excessively secular and rationalist view of life caused her to shrink from such subjects, because her philosophy had no answers to the problems they raised. So she created an elaborate rationalization in order to dismiss novels that raised just the sort of difficult issues which demonstrate the poverty of her philosophy. She argued that the very fact that an author chooses a tragical subject is proof positive that he considers the subject of paramount importance. If an author like Tolstoy writes a novella about death (e.g., The Death of Ivan Illyich), this proves that Tolstoy believes that death is the most significant thing of all, more significant, even then life, which, Rand would argue, proves that Tolstoy has a "malevolent sense of life." But here Rand, as usual, misses the point altogether. The The Death of Ivan Illyich is not a glorification of death, but merely a mediation about death, giving Tolstoy's thoughts about the subject. Whether death is "metaphysically significant" or not, it's clearly an important subject; so why shouldn't a novelist, especially one as great as Tolstoy, provide his take on it? By dismissing the lion's share of great literature as "malevolent," Rand merely encourages her followers to remain ignorant of the some of the best that has been said and thought about the great issues confronting human beings.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

JARS: "Putting Humans First?"

David Graham and Nathan Nobis review Tibor Machan's treatise Putting Human's First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite, which is neo-Objectivist attack on the animal right's crowd. The review is somewhat critical. The authors are not impressed by Machan's arguments and they go so far as to accuse Machan of taking an ambiguous stance. At one point in his treatise, Machan writes:

"Should there ... be laws against certain kinds of cruelty to animals? This is not something I am willing to address fully here. Suffice it to say that, for my part, I would not necessarily take exception if someone were to rescue an animal being treated with cruelty, even if this amounted to invading someone's private property. If one spotted a neighbor torturing a cat, albeit on his own private property, one could well be morally remiss in failing to invade the place and rescue the animal."

This is a curious statement coming from someone arguing against animal rights from an Objectivist standpoint. It suggests that Machan feels a certain ambivalence about the subject. It further suggests conceptual poverty of Objectivist views on morality, politics, and justice. In the real world, things aren't so simple as the Objectivist would like them to be. Normal decent human beings are appalled by anyone who receives pleasure from torturing animals. To frame the whole issue in terms of human beings, who are the only creatures entitled to rights and may do anything with their property, and animals who have no rights and are the merely the property which human beings can do anything with, clearly misses the full reality of the issue.

The illustrate the inadequacy of the Objectivist view, take the recent case of two brothers who were sentenced ten years for torturing a puppy. From an Objectivist standpoint, this sentence is an act of injustice. Animals have no rights and while it may be immoral to torture them it should not be illegal. Yet this viewpoint lacks basic common sense. The fact is that any individual who is so destitute of common humanity that he takes pleasure in torturing animals poses a threat to society. Such an individual simply cannot be trusted. Who is to say that in the future he won't take pleasure in torturing human beings as well? Hence there is a kind of justice, or at least a kind of wisdom, in removing him from society.

Friday, March 09, 2007

JARS: "Essays on Ayn Rand's Fiction"

In this article, Susan L. Brown reviews two collections of essays from ARI, the first collecting essays about Rand's novel Anthem, the second collecting essays about We the Living. Although Ms. Brown's reviews are largely positive in tone, she does see fit to complain of "the failure of its authors to cite the work of other scholars who have dealt with some of the issues involved here, and their dogged persistence in conveying the notion that Ayn Rand ... never really change her mind about anything." I suspect that this latter charge goes to the heart of Rand's psychopathology. When Rand revised We the Living, she claimed that she only made "editorial-line changes." Well, that simply isn't the case. Changes were made in the views expressed in the novel. The 1936 version lacked the ideal-man view of her later novels; it has a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward capitalism; and it contained several passages expressing the Nietzschean view that "character is fate" and that people are born to be what they are.

Rand was clearly embarrassed by these views she held earlier in her development and went out of her way to deny that she had ever held them -- despite the evidence to the contrary. But why should it matter whether she held somewhat different views earlier in her career? There is nothing wrong about changing one's mind. Those of us who are critics of Rand might think she changed for the worse; but her admirers could easily embrace the opposite view. Why, then, should both Rand and her apologists shrink from admitting that she changed her mind? It appears that Rand felt there was something shameful in changing one's mind, as if it were immensely degrading and humiliating. Does this, then, explain her intemperate hostility to the notion that all knowledge is ultimately conjectural and that knowledge is largely the product of trial and error and ceaseless self-criticism? Does it explain her uncompromising dogmatism and her ill-fated, limping theory of "contextual certainty"?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Slow Posting Weeks, Upcoming Projects

Just a note to say that my posting will be limited over the coming weeks due to work and travel commitments. Greg may post as the spirit moves him. I'm also working on a couple of longer term projects for the site. One is an "Instant ARCHN" sidebar - an introduction to visitors who have not read the book, so they know what the Sam Hill we are talking about.

Here's a proposed structure. First, some basic critical tools one needs to see what's wrong with Rand's theories:

a) About 'Essentialism'
This will briefly examine the methodological problems philosophy - and Objectivism in spades - inherited from Aristotle and Plato and that Popper exploded in his classic chapter 11 in "The Open Society and its Enemies", illustrated with examples from Rand.

b) The Ayn Rand Word-Game Lexicon
A handy list of the many verbal devices that Rand uses to confuse - oxymorons such as "contextual absolute", her key equivocations over terms such as "man's life", and the other sundry verbal fudges that permeate her work. Then:

Reality Contra Ayn Rand: A Summary of ARCHN's arguments.
This will give capsule overviews of the book's refutations of Rand's various theories
- Theory of Human Nature
- Theory of History
- Theory of Knowledge
- Theory of Metaphysics
- Theory of Morals
- Theory of Politics
- Theory of Aesthetics
Summary of ARCHN's conclusions

If y'all have anything you'd also like to see here, let me know.

I'm also working on a review of "We The Living" and a Popperian look at the unwittingly Platonic roots of Rand's ethical theories. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 2 - addendum

Before being interrupted by other pressing issues (JARS, etc.), I had been doing a short series of posts on Rand's morality. Originally, I had thought of trying to give the actual logic argument for Rand's ethics. One small problem: since Rand herself never provided a logical argument for her theory of morality, it's difficult to know what that would be. One has to build the argument entirely for oneself, trying to draw implicit premises from the rather vague and not terribly enlightening rhetoric that make up Rand's official theory. Fortunately, Michael Huemer has done this troublesome and thankless work for us. His article not only presents the Randian argument in logical form, but he provides, as a kind of bonus, a devastating critique of that argument, in both its logical and rhetorical forms. Here's an example of the most salient point in Huemer's critique:

"The problem is that ... 'rational' and 'man qua man' are simply fudge words. That is, their function in the theory is that they enable Rand to claim almost anything she likes as being supported by her theory, and also to reject any attempt to infer conclusions that she doesn't want from the theory....

"[A] 'fudge word' is a word that functions to make fudging easy. 'Rational' and 'man qua man' are Rand's fudge words. She never gives a precise and unambiguous criterion for their applicability. Thus, suppose someone tries to argue that, on Rand's theory, it would be morally acceptable to steal from people, provided you could get away with it. Then she has at least two fudges she can employ (probably more): (a) She could claim that this is not in your interests, because there is always a risk that you might get caught, and it's not worth it. This works because no one knows how to calculate this risk, so no one can actually refute this claim. This is the sort of thing I have seen many Objectivists do. However, Rand doesn't do this in 'The Objectivist Ethics'; she goes for the second sort of fudge: (b) She can claim that although you would gain money from this, it would not be in your rational interests, or it would not be serving the life of 'man qua man', or that it would reduce you to a 'subhuman' status. Thus, she can immediately bog down the counter-example in an interminable debate about what is or isn't 'rational', 'subhuman', etc., because no precise and unambiguous criterion of the rational, or the human, has been identified. She gets to make it up as she goes along.'