Sunday, November 18, 2007

Response to Anon76

Anon76 begins his extraordinary series of posts by trying to diminish the claims of cognitive science on the grounds that there exists no consensus on the prototype theory and that, as a matter of fact, there are "many, many" competing theories. This, however, is a palpable exaggeration. If you were to count every subtle variation of each of the main theories, then you might get "many, many," but what would be the point of that? And, indeed, even the main theories are hardly inclusive of each other. Exemplar theories are often considered a kind of prototype theory, while the theory-theory view, which comes close to Popper's suggestion of a concepts as "theory-laden," could easily be dovetailed into the prototype theory (thus, the hybrid views). Atomistic theories are a bit more complicated. But they're even further from Rand's view (in their strong version, they hold that many concepts are innate), so why Anon76 would want to bring them up is anyone's guess.

One theory Anon didn't bring up is the Classical view of concepts, sometimes called Definitionism, of which Objectivism is a variant. Definitionism dominated thinking in the West until the last thirty years or so, during which it has taken mortal blows from cognitive science and the growing appreciation of Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances (which I will discuss in a future post).

Anon76, I fear, simply has no clue as to the point of my Cognitive Revolution posts. He seems to be under the illusion that I am presenting these excerpts from books on the Cognitive Revolution as irrefragible proofs which conflict with nearly everything Rand believed. But that is not my intention at all. I am well aware that the theories developed by the Cognitive Revolution are conjectural, as are all scientific theories. To be sure, they are conjectures based on extensive empirical research that has been held up to the scrutiny of peer review. Contrast this with the conjectures brought forth by Rand, which were presented to the world without a whiff of evidence and have never faced the critical rigors of scientific peer review.

Now none of us at ARCHNBlog are experts in the field of cognitive science. So the question arises: if we want to know something about human cognition, where should we turn? Should we look to Rand, who is not a recognized expert on cognition, whose views are largely speculative, who shunned debates with other experts and who provided no scientific evidence to support her speculations? Or should we turn to those who have spent their entire adult lives specializing in doing scientific research on human cognition and whose findings are subject to peer review? I don't think there can be any doubt as to how a reality-centric person would answer these questions. Whatever shortcomings cognitive science may or may not have, there is every reason to believe that its findings are sounder and closer to the truth than those of Rand.

Keeping this in mind, I was sorry to find Anon76 denigrating Morton Hunt as a mere "popular science writer." In his book, The Universe Within, Hunt has presented his research on cognitive science in a way that can be understood by the intelligent layman. His book includes a 17 page list of cited sources, listing over 150 citations. He interviewed dozens of cognitive sciences, some of whom even went as far as to demonstrate their research to Hunt. Two cognitive sciences read Hunt's book in manuscript and offered corrections. Contrast this with Rand's IOTE, which has no list of cited sources, no citations of scientific studies, and which was written without the assistance of any cognitive scientists. (Incidentally, the problem of Rand's poor scholarship has been devastatingly criticized by Gary Merrill here.)

The core of Anon76's response is a rather confused defense of "invalid concepts" bundled with an attack on Popper's rejection of essentialist definitions. Let us consider "invalid concepts," first of all. Anon76 writes "One would think that [Greg Nyquist's] admission that there are such things as inefficient concepts would tend to support AR's theory, since it is precisely the inefficiency that she cites in her allegation that a concept like Blue Eyed Blondes, 5'11" tall would be an invalid concept." Unfortunately for Anon76, this view does not easily accord with what Rand wrote elsewhere about invalid concepts. According to Rand, invalid concepts are "attempts to integrate errors, contradictions or false propositions." Even worse, Rand claimed that "An invalid concept invalidates every proposition or process of thought in which it is used as a cognitive assertion." (IOTE, 65) This view, however, is self-contradictory, as can easily be demonstrated by the following proposition:
Blue Eyed Blondes, 5'11" tall are mortal.
Now Rand claims that any assertion made with invalid concepts is itself "invalid." Yet this proposition, using a concept which, at least according to Anon76, Rand regarded as "invalid," yields a proposition that is both intelligible and true. The error here is to assume that what I have called an "inefficient" concept can't refer to something in reality.

Even more problematic is the kind of the concepts that Rand considered "invalid"—concepts such as polarization, consumerism, extremism, isolationism, meritocracy, and simplistic. To suggest that these concepts have the same epistemological status as "all bachelors and non-returnable bottles is preposterous. Try submitting such a view to a peer reviewed journal in mainstream philosophy or cognitive science and see how far you get.

We get into even murkier waters when Anon76 turns to Popper's critique of definitions. Now it is important to understand that Popper's main point of attack is against essentialist definitions, i.e., the sort of definitions advocated by Aristotle and Rand. Popper does not deny that science uses definitions, but they are "nominalist definitions," and as such are only shorthand symbols or labels for some proposed phenomenon or theory. Popper's main two arguments against essentialist definitions are (1) They lead to "verbalism," that is "specious and insignificant" arguments about words; and (2) They lead either to an infinite regress or to circularity. Since Daniel Barnes has already addressed issues with (2), I will confine my comments to their first argument.

Verbalism. Essentialist definitions lead to verbalism for the simple reason that there exists no objective, formalized method to distinguish between true and false, good or bad, or proper and "improper" definitions. Consequently, when there is a disagreement over definitions, it cannot but lead to an argument about words.

Anon76, in trying to explain what distinguishes a "valid" from an "invalid" definition, writes: "A definition is valid when it highlights an essential distinguishing characteristic, i.e., the characteristic that explains the greatest number of other distinguishing characteristics of a class of things." But as a practical matter, this simply doesn't cut it. Among other things, it fails to address problems raised by Wittgenstein in his notion of family resemblances (to be discussed in a future post). It also commits the naive blunder of overemphasizing distinguishing characteristics at the expense of all other characteristics, thereby making the utterly gratuitous assumption that what distinguishes one referent from another is more important, in terms of understanding the referent, then the non-distinguishing characteristics. This is clearly seen in the Objectivist definition of man as a rational animal. Yet as anyone who reads history or knows anything about social psychology can tell you, non-rational motivation is clearly at least as important, if not more so, in the understanding human nature, than is rationality.

Anon76 in another place makes the following extraordinary confession: "Once we have definitions, then we use them to know what we mean," he writes. "But we know what we mean before we define a concept--otherwise we wouldn't know what to define. There are a thousand philosophical paradoxes that result without this fairly obvious point." But if we already know what we mean before we have the definition, then what is the point of having the definition? On this account, it's not so much paradoxical as redundant. If you know what you mean and other people know what you mean, trotting out a definition is merely an exercise in barren pleonasm.

We can guess what the point is by observing how Rand used definitions in practice. Albert Ellis long ago pointed out the problem of what he called "definitional thinking" in Objectivism — that is, assuming the point at issue in your definitions as a tactic of debate. We see this sort of "definist fallacy" in its clearest form in Rand's discussion of the term selfish, which she insist has only one meaning (i.e., her meaning). But as a matter of fact, a term's meaning is determined by the person using it. If a person uses the word selfish to mean "not having consideration for other people," then that is what he means by it and there's an end. There is no such thing as a "one and only true meaning" for a term, because terms are instrumental. If you have any doubt about this, just look at any unabridged dictionary — the Oxford English dictionary, for example. There you will find that most words have multiple definitions and can be used in many different senses. In the very best dictionaries, there will be examples, taken from literature, illustrating the particular usage defined.


PhysicistDave said...


Looking through Anon76's postings and based on my own experiences with other Objectivists, I am beginning to conclude that "Objectivism" is simply a mildly interesting exercise in not very bright high-school debating tactics.

Rand had some good ideas. Very few, if any, of those good ideas were original with her.

She also had some very bad ideas.

Of course, the same statements could be made about Albert Einstein, John Locke, Charles Darwin, etc. Al human beings make some serious intellectual mistakes. No human being originates most of the ideas he or she holds.

But I have not seen any Objectivist willing to acknowledge those simple facts about Rand – in particular, the fact that she made some serious mistakes.

Maybe we should start a contest – be the first Objectivist on your block to point out some serious, fundamental errors made by Ayn Rand!

What the Objectivists do seem to be good at is debating techniques such as switching the subject to meta-issues, running out the clock, demanding that their opponents waste their time reading and refuting obvious nonsense, etc.

For example, as you know, I am spreading the word about the fact that ARI has become an anti-science cult – specifically, an anti-physics cult, which especially interest me as a physicist (vide Peikoff’s and Dave Harriman’s bizarre attacks on relativity, the fact of the Big Bang, etc.). It’s becoming clear that the “official” Objectivist response (e.g., Diana Hsieh’s) is that I am morally estopped from criticizing such nonsense until I have read every single word (and paid good money for the books!) of the fools who are propagating this idiocy.

Needless to say, Objectivists almost never follow this advice themselves: they routinely engage in vicious attacks with almost no knowledge of the views of the person they are attacking.

Is Objectivism a philosophy? No, not really. It’s just a warmed over potpourri of earlier philosophical ideas from empiricism, eudaemonism, natural rights theory, etc. I’m sympathetic to all of those strands which were glued together to make “Objectivism.” But one can, and many have, learned all of that independently of Ayn Rand.

No, Objectivism is not a philosophy. It’s a mode of behavior. It’s a means of taking advantage of most human beings’ decency and sense of tolerance in order to bully them into acquiescence, or at least silence.

It may not be worth much as philosophy, but it is certainly an interesting case study in social psychology!

All the best,


Daniel Barnes said...

Physicist Dave:
>It’s becoming clear that the “official” Objectivist response (e.g., Diana Hsieh’s) is that I am morally estopped from criticizing such nonsense until I have read every single word (and paid good money for the books!) of the fools who are propagating this idiocy.

You'll be lucky to get books! A great deal of the ARI's allegedly "groundbreaking" works are audio lectures - thus rendering them rather harder to quote and critique. Oh, and they're not cheap either...

PhysicistDave said...

Yeah, Daniel. As they say in the religion business, praise the Lord and pass the collection plate.

But of course, I'm not the first person to notice the similarity between ARI's business model and that of churches.

This audiotape fixation is really weird, though. Surely, most Objectivists do actually know how to read?

Or maybe the psychological intimidation thing works better on audiotape -- you can use verbal inflections to engage in withering putdowns, derisive dismissals, etc., and it's harder to do that in print --though Rand was pretty good at it, even in print!

Even if her contemporary followers are pretty dreary people, I always found the Old Girl herself was great for getting the blood flowing.


Anonymous said...

Thank you kindly for drawing such public attention to my comments. Now people will be able to read them and realize the flaws in your position (because I don't think the responses in this post come even close to shoring it up).


Daniel Barnes said...

Physicist Dave
>This audiotape fixation is really weird, though.

Yeah, but its got some clear pluses.
1) Becomes highly impervious to outside scrutiny - what critic going to listen to, let alone buy, a 26 hr Peikoff lecture series? Whereas the faithful are only too happy to fork out for it.
2) It's also got the whole Become a Philosophic Mastermind The E-Z Way thing going on too - a bit like "Atlas Shrugged". In Just 26 1hr Lessons! etc
3) Harder to quote directly, no footnotes or references, more emotional delivery can carry the day rather than argument. Such obscurity improves mystique...

>What the Objectivists do seem to be good at is debating techniques such as switching the subject to meta-issues, running out the clock, demanding that their opponents waste their time reading and refuting obvious nonsense, etc.

Spoken like a man who's debated Jim Valliant...;-)

PhysicistDave said...


Have you figured out yet that when intelligent, informed, educated people see the word “Objectivism,” they start laughing?

The official center of Objectivism, the Ayn Rand Institute, has become the center of a bizarre pseudo-scientific cult that attacks everything from the Big Bang to Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Here’s a link where Peikoff and his chief henchman in this endeavor are quoted verbatim:

Here’s a video kindly posted online by the Ayn Rand Institute (free registration at ARI required) where you can see some of the nonsense for yourself:

And here’s a recent attempt by me to warn some Objectivists of the anti-scientific nonsense they are now supporting (I fear they did not appreciate my fatherly warning – the thread may be deleted soon):

Objectivism is now the intellectual equivalent of the Raelians or of Scientology.

Do you know any science at all? Can you understand how idiotic this all is?

Objectivism has done a lot of psychological damage to many people over the years, its history is the history of one bizarre purge after another, and now it has finally come to this – a senile old man, Lenny Peikoff down in LA, who is so convinced of his god-like intellect that he is willing to tell physicists, astrophysicists, etc. that all that they know is nonsense.

The poor guy is crazier than Lyndon LaRouche or OJ Simpson.

I admire Greg and Dan for trying to deal with Objectivism on an intellectual basis.

But c’mon, Objectivism has simply become a bizarre (and not very successful) cult.