Friday, September 14, 2007

Objectivist Myths 2: Rand Solved The Mind/Body Problem

The 'mind/body' (or perhaps better called the 'mind/brain') problem is perhaps the toughest problem in all philosophy. Once again, there is an impression abroad that Rand somehow solved this issue, or even made some important contribution to it. Unfortunately, this again turns out to be false.

Objectivists seem to generally confuse Rand having a strong opinion on an issue with her solving it. While she talked a lot about 'rejecting the mind/body dichotomy' on examination she says little that is interesting or original on the subject. In fact, it closely resembles little more than double-talk. For, oddly, despite her strenuous rejection of any "mind-body dichotomy," we find her elsewhere strongly embracing a obviously dualist position without so much as batting an eyelash. For example, from the ITOE p166:
"I want to stress this; it is a very important distinction. A great number of philosophical errors and confusions are created by failing to distinguish between consciousness and existence -- between the process of consciousness and the reality of the world outside, between the perceiver and the perceived."
Further, from Diana Hsieh's handy survey, "Mind in Objectivism" we find Harry Binswanger avowing:
"So, yes, I'm a dualist. Or as Leonard [Peikoff] says in OPAR, because the term dualism is not one we have to fight to save and it's so associated with Descartes, the proper word for it is: Objectivism, not dualism."
Of course, a dualism without a dichotomy is rather like a grin without at cat - and we find ourselves again, as we do so often with Randian theorising, in the realm of mere word play. (incidentally, Binswanger's comment stands as yet another excellent if unwitting example of a verbalist philosophy in action; he admits he is a dualist, but apparently what is most urgently required is to change the terminology from "dualism" to "Objectivism"!)

Via such wordplay Rand can, as she does in her epistemology, both accept and deny the same position with equal vehemence. Adding further confusion, Rand sometimes even denies that the issue is a philosophical problem, and tries to fob it off onto science. As Hsieh notes:
"When asked whether “the relation of conscious activity to brain activity” is “a scientific question,” Rand simply replies “Yes” (Rand 1990, 290)."
Well, if the mind/brain problem isn't a philosophical question, then what is she on about then? According to Rand, the philosopher's proper role is only to "define the terms in question." Never mind the problem, worry about the words! Who needs philosophers, one wonders, when you've got dictionaries. Objectivism's verbalist priorities and scholastic method are once again obvious.

Further, as Hsieh's survey shows, what Rand does say on the subject is so vague and provides so little clear guidance that her followers have merely ended up arranging themselves all over the map of the historically pre-existing dualistic positions on the subject, with little more agreement among them than currently exists anywhere else. For example, Nathaniel Branden has tentatively plumped for panpsychism. Roger Bissell holds what appears to be a version of identity theory, with hard-deterministic implications. Binswanger has the above causal substance dualism, which is apparently "controversial" among Objectivists. But it is hardly any "spookier" than Rand and Peikoff's position, which from what can be made out, is a vague but interactionist position. In other words, nothing particularly new here, and certainly nothing like a solution to this ancient question. Hsieh's survey conclusion says it all:
"The precise nature of a theory of mind compatible with Objectivism...has yet to be established."


Anonymous said...

The funniest thing is that claim that "we aren't dualists, we are Objectivists." Kind of like "we aren't libertarians, we are radicals for capitalism."

When do Objectivists discard terms like capitalism, radicalism, individualism, etc. because they are associated with people they don't like? Consistency would seem to demand it.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Is anybody aware of the official Objectivist position on Daniel Dennet and his views on free will and consciousness. From my layman perspective he seems to make a lot of sense. He is 100% materialist. Yet makes a great case for the emergence of free will that is compatible with a deterministic universe. His view also allows for an indeterministic universe.

I'm curious to know if he is considered a thinker that is evil/dishonest/evader or somebody an Objectivists might consider honest and on the right track.

(Hmmm, is there any philospher around today that Objectivists can say good things about?)

Daniel Barnes said...

>Is anybody aware of the official Objectivist position on Daniel Dennet...

It can only be "Evil": denies free will.

>He is 100% materialist.

The confusion over this in Rand land is maximal. I have read (and argued) with plenty of O'ists who take hard-materialist positions (mostly because of Rand's rhetoric about Plato, religion etc), yet who don't realise this entails taking a hard-determinist position on free will.

I call this genre the "Accidental Determinists"...;-)

>I'm curious to know if he is considered a thinker that is evil/dishonest/evader or somebody an Objectivists might consider honest and on the right track.

Most likely they "don't think of him"...;-)

Unknown said...

What's the Objectivist objection to Spinoza's solution to the Mind/Body Problem, i.e. neutral monism?

Anonymous said...

I found this review of Dennett's "Free Will Evolve". The review is by Eyal Mozes.

Anonymous said...

"The precise nature of a theory of mind compatible with Objectivism...has yet to be established."

In OPAR, Peikoff mentioned that this was one area where Rand's study was incomplete. He also mentioned the possibility of new and exciting work in the field of neuroscience to this end. I'm not sure how much (if any) of that work has been done. Nevertheless I would be very interested in seeing it should it ever surface.

Daniel Barnes said...

Well, I'd double ditto that.

To be honest, as a Popperian I have some sympathy for Rand's dualist view of the mind, possibly more than Greg does.

It really is the hardest problem out there however.

Paul Kennedy said...

I think you are confusing what Ayn Rand meant by the mind-body dichotomy. Yes, there is a very important distinction between existence and consciousness; Leonard Peikoff does a good job explaining in OPAR how both subjectivism and intrinicism are examples of the primacy of consciousness. However, when Ayn Rand says she rejects the mind-body dichotomy, she is not saying they are the same thing. She is saying that there should be no contradiction, no dicotomy between your values and principles and you behavior and expression. This is why, for example, she rejects Platonic love (refusing in body the one whom you know is deserving of love). This is also why she rejects pragmatism which says "forget principles and morality, let's be practical" which implies that morality (the mind side of the dichotomy) is in opposition to what is practical (the body side). She rejects the also rejects the concrete-abstraction dichotomy, and the theory-practice dichotomy, both variants of the M-B dichotomy.

In summary, I believe your misunderstanding lies in assuming that by rejecting the mind body dichotomy she was saying they were metaphysically the same thing. In fact, she's saying the opposite; they are unique and separate things, each with a specific identity which must be in harmony with each other. The issue is more ethical than metaphysical.

Red Grant said...


In fact, she's saying the opposite; they are unique and separate things, each with a specific identity which must be in harmony with each othe. - Paul

Wasn't that the ideal of samurai?

"To know and to act the same"

Rob Quinn said...

I thought that objectivist rejection of the term "dualism" was because of its prior association with Descartes, not because they are avoiding a dual view of life as having both a mind and body aspect.

I thought Binswanger's comments were accepting dualism but reject the Descartes interpretation.

Unknown said...

Harry and Peikoff were trying to explain, but taking their comments out of context misses everything else they say which illuminates. Rand actually does a great job of explaining this as does Peikoff and Binswager. The whole thing is swept aside by the axioms. To understand this one must look beyond Descartes and Hobbes, as Rand, Peikoff and Binswager say they are really two of the same thing, the spiritualists, or idealist, or dualist, or rationalists, or in objectivist terms Intrincisist, vs the materialist, skeptics, monist, empiricist, or in objectivist terms the subjectivist are really the same thing it's why Rand says "they are two sides of the same coin both symbols of death" it is not simply a value issue, it covers values, epistemology and metaphysics(as wel as politics and art).

You have to take a 10,000 mile view to fully appreciate it, but its contained in the axioms. The dualist or rationalist or idealist postulates a mind without a body, or a mind disconnected from a body, or a mind disconnected from reality, a mind that has total knowledge and omniscience, a "world of forms" or a supernatural realm, a mind that stands above the physical world and the materialist, or monist says "true enough" if that is the mind then there is no mind, if knowledge means omniscience then there is no knowledge only subjective whim, or nominalism. But again, they are refuted both the same by the axioms Rand identifies, both the rationalist/spiritualist/intrincisist and the empiricist/materialist/subjectivist have to smuggle in the other part. In order for the materialist to say that there is no mind only a mechanistic body, or that there is no certainty "people disagree" "they have their own experience" they have to smuggle in certainty and consciousness, for there is no disagreement and no experience without a mind. This isn't dualism its objectivism.