Friday, April 06, 2007

JARS: "A Beauty Contest for Dichotomies: Browne's Terminological Revolutions"

Roderick T. Long, responding to Gregory Browne's article "The 'Grotesque' Dichotomies Still Unbeautified," contributes a rather technical article that will strike some readers as pedantic and other as niggling. In any case, despite the subtle clarity of much of Long's analysis, to my mind he altogether misses what should be the main point of the whole exercise. At stake in any debate over the analytic-synthetic dichotomy (and that's what the debate really is all about) is the question of what is the best way to determine matters of fact: deductions from first principles (i.e., from "axioms" and the like); or experimental reasonings based on scientifically controlled observations and criticisms from qualified experts (i.e., the scientific method). I contend that the scientific method is far and away the best method of determining matters of fact, and that, when stripped of all the pedantic excesses that Kant placed around it, this is what the analytic-synthetic is striving to assert. And so any attack on this dichotomy, particularly one that goes all the way down to its core truth about the cognitive superiority of "empirical science," is motivated by a desire to give speculative philosophy the same cognitive standing as scientifically tested knowledge and common sense knowledge derived from observation and experience. The Objectivist attack against the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is simply a roundabout way of rationalizing Rand's deplorable empirical irresponsibility. Rand wanted to believe in a theory of human nature that fails to accord with the facts. Since she could not defend her theory on the basis evidence, she chose instead to defend it with the appearance of logic. The argument for the Objectivist version of free will is essentially an argument for Rand's theory of human nature. Bear in mind: she provided no other argument for her view of man--none whatsoever! Her argument is presented as if it were a kind of logical validation on par with empirical evidence. But since this sort of procedure for determining matters of fact is challenged by the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, Rand had Peikoff write his notorious article against it.

Curiously, Browne himself, as noted by Long, complained that Rand and Peikoff have an "excessive aversion" to more geometrico reasoning (i.e., to determining matters of fact through logical or pseudo-logical constructions, rather than through observations, research, and the scientific method). I don't know where he finds this "excessive aversion." If we judge Peikoff and Rand, not merely on what they say, but how they go about their business, it becomes clear that more geometrico reasoning is one of their favorite methods of defending Objectivist dogma.


Anonymous said...

A good example is Rand's theory of concept formation. Rand was quite content to tell you how the mind of adults, children and even animals operate because she assumed that for concepts to be "objective" the mind must work in a certain way.

Anonymous said...

Uh - let's look at the facts.

From Aristotle (the King of Arguing from First Principles) to Bacon (Father of the Scientific Method), how much scientific advancement was made? How many major discoveries? Major truths about the nature of mankind and the universe in which he dwells? How about political developments? The advancements of human freedom? The spread of democratic forms of government?

And from Bacon to present day, how many scientific discoveries have there been? How many breakthroughs in medicine, physics, chemisty, geology, biology, etc.? How much better do we understand the universe and mankind?

If scholars and scientists had kept dickering about "first principles" and reasoning from incomplete we'd still be thinking that a 50 kg stone falls ten times faster than a 5 kg stone. We'd also still be thinking that rocks fall because , being composed of earth, they seek to join the earth and smoke rises because, it being composed of mostly air, seeks to join the air.

Well, maybe not. We might just as well have a different set of "first principles" that offer wildy different but equally fallacious explanations and predictions about the ourselves and the world around us. Either way, we wouldn't be any nearer to understanding that things really are or why they are.

Any Objectivists out there care to explain how philosopher-supreme Aristotle (and his apologists from Aquinas to Rand) got so much about physics, biology, zoology, meteorology, etc. stone dead wrong when their method is supposedly so superior?

Daniel Barnes said...

Passing thru a wireless hotspot briefly, I can only say "bingo" to the above.

Anonymous said...

A priori reasoning is better for subjects that ARE a priori (like philosophy and economics) which is why the Aristotelean tradition's contributions in those areas still stand up. (The Aristotelean Scholastics were the fathers of Austrian free-market economics. For a deense of a priori economics see Empirical methods are better for subjects that ARE empirical (like natural science) which is why Aristotelean methods have held up less well there. Whether a given field is empirical or a priori is something that must be determined by investigtaing its nature; one can't simply declare a priori that all fields are empirical.

Daniel Barnes said...

> can't simply declare a priori that all fields are empirical.

Hi Roderick,

I suppose that depends on what you mean by "empirical." My friend, Popper and Mises scholar Rafe Champion has written a paper which shows how Popper's Critical Rationalism might overcome some of the standard criticisms (eg its apparent rejection of empirical experience) of the Austrian approach:

gregnyquist said...

R. Long: "One can't simply declare a priori that all fields are empirical."

But I have not said this. What I merely contend is for the "cognitive superiority" of so-called empirical science. I have no where suggested that this empirical method can be applied to all fields. Indeed, that's one cognitive challenges facing mankind: that empirical science cannot solve all questions concerning the nature of factual reality. In those fields where empirical methods are hamstrung (such as economics, where the inability to isolate variables frustrates any attempt for rigorous empirical testing), deductive methods must be resorted. But these, I contend, are inferior methods. In economics, the theorist deduces principles from simplified premises. Precisely because the premises are simplified, the most the theorist can hope for is some kind of approximation of reality. Hence, the economist Frank Knight, a defender of this method cited approvingly by von Mises in Human Action, describes the deductive method in economics as "the method of successive approximations." Austrian economists, including von Mises himself, have tended to place too much faith in their deductions, leading to dogmatism and a failure to grapple with parts of their theory whose accordance with reality is not as felicitous as one might wish. There might, for example, be some questions regarding how well the Austrian view of protectionism fits in with the empirical effects of protectionism in America in the 19th century. I contend that mere deduction from over-simplified premises cannot settle this question, or any other question, for all time, particularly absence of clear and unambiguous empirical corroboration, which, of course, is impossible in economics. Sometimes the best we can do is make an educated guess!