Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 3: Metaphysics

Neil Parille takes a further look at just how "unprecedented" Rand's ideas really are:

In my previous posts Part 1 and 2, I reviewed Ayn Rand’s ideas on human nature and social and political philosophy, highlighting many similarities with other thinkers. Now I turn to Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology. In this and the following post I will rely at times on the works of Orthodox Objectivists like Leonard Peikoff, who discusses certain topics in more detail than Rand.

The Primacy of Existence
Rand argued that the “basic metaphysical issue” is “the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs, p. 24.) She traces the modern revival of the primacy of consciousness to Rene Descartes. She puts it as follows:

“Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor . . . ‘the prior certainty of consciousness,’ the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness—which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 28.)

Thomistic philosopher Fredrick Wilhelmsen said something quite similar in his 1956 book Man’s Knowledge of Reality:

“As indicated, there are only two fundamentally opposed positions of the first principles or truths from which philosophy should begin and upon which philosophy should be grounded: Philosophy must seek its point of departure in the mind or philosophy must seek it in things.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, p. 17.)

“This issue is Descartes’ insistence that philosophy must begin in and from the mind and proceed to things; that the first unshakeable truth known to man is the existence of himself as a thinking principle; that everything known else known to man is dependent on this first of truths; and that, consequently, whatever is known about the world is critically dependent on what is first known about one’s own knowing. If a man accepts Descartes’ initial principle, he is forced immediately to ask the following question: If I am philosophically—that is, critically—certain of only one thing at the outset of my philosophizing, and if this one thing is the existence of myself as a thinking principle, then how am I able (if I am able at all) to move from this primitive certitude to a knowledge of other things, and, most especially, to a knowledge of the existence of the extra-mental world, of things existing independently of my own understanding.” (Id., p. 14.)

Atheism and Anti-Supernaturalism
Rand rejected God and the supernatural. She believed that the “natural elements” of the universe were uncreated and that everything in the universe (with the exception of human consciousness) acts deterministically. (Peikoff, OPAR, pp. 25 & 64.) Rand’s secularism and naturalism are not unique in the history of philosophy, and many secular thinkers have embraced free will notwithstanding its apparent contradiction with a deterministic universe (some Epicureans for example).

Leonard Peikoff argues that the law of causality is a “corollary” of the law of identity. According to Peikoff, the “validation of the law of causality consists in stating this relationship [an entity’s nature and mode of action] explicitly. The validation rests on two points: the fact that action is action of an entity; and the law of identity, A is A. Every entity has a nature; it is specific, noncontradictory, limited; it has certain attributes and no others. Such an entity must act in accordance with its nature.” (Peikoff, OPAR, p. 14.)

A book which is popular in Objectivist circles is H.W. B. Joseph’s An Introduction to Logic, first published in 1906. Here is part of Orthodox Objectivist Harry Binswanger’s favorable review:

“On causality, for example, Joseph states: ‘The world, as we have already insisted, is not a mere procession of events, but the events concern things; a cause is a thing acting; it produces a change in some thing.’ And: the law of causality ‘is no more than a corollary of the Law of Identity, that the same thing unaltered on different occasions, or two things of the same nature, should under the same conditions produce the same effect.’ And: ‘A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between a and x implies that a acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is a.’”

Laws of Logic Are the Laws of Reality
According to Rand, there is a close connection between the laws of logic and the nature of reality. She said:

“Logic has a single law, the Law of Identity, and its various corollaries. If logic has nothing to do with reality, it means that the Law of Identity is inapplicable to reality. If so, then: a. things are not what they are; b. things can be and not be at the same time, in the same respect, i.e., reality is made up of contradictions." (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 15.)

As Joseph put it in An Introduction to Logic:
“We cannot think contradictory propositions, because we see that a thing cannot have at once and not have the same character; and a necessity of thought is really the apprehension of a necessity in the being of things. . . . The Law of Contradiction then is metaphysical or ontological.”
The Joseph quote is taken from Brand Blanshard’s The Nature of Thought. Rand was familiar with Blanshard’s writings and corresponded with him. (Berliner, ed., The Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 629-30.)


Meg's Marginalia said...

Why was Rand so intent on determinism? Because of the "benevolent universe" premise? And how does she reconcile this extreme determinism of the physical world with free will and nondeterminism that humans have as individuals if she rejects the possibility of the supernatural or of God, and if she humans are just part of the natural world?

Daniel Barnes said...

>And how does she reconcile this extreme determinism of the physical world with free will and nondeterminism that humans have as individuals...

I suspect because, like so many of her pronouncements, she really doesn't get the problem in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Determinism doesn't mean that each and every one of our actions is predetermined. For humans it means that our minds and bodies are bound by certain biological limitations. For example, we can decide whether to sit on the couch or go to the gym, or eat chicken vs. steak. We can't decide to read someone's mind or fly into the air.

The mechanism of choice was naturally selected, so it's not any kind of contradiction that we have it. For us it's part of what living in the natural world means.

Anonymous said...

So you accept evolution but not quantum mechanics?

JayCross said...

I'm not familiar enough with classical physics vs. quantum to have made a decision.