Friday, February 12, 2010

Objectivism Contra Logic

"'Standard logic' this may be; Objectivism, I submit, it ain't."

- Lindsay Perigo, The Free Radical Online

Objectivism makes a great play of its commitment to logic. "The fundamental concept of method, the one on which all the others depend, is logic", Rand intones in her scanty "Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology". But it turns out that like so much of Objectivism, this purported commitment to an objective standard of argument turns out to be fake; yet another shell-game played with words. All she and her followers are really committing to is her own peculiar definition of logic, which she calls "the art of non-contradictory identification." What this means when the rubber hits the road of a syllogism, and how it fits or does not fit with the rules of standard bi-valent logic as they've evolved over the centuries, Rand chose to never explain.

This deliberate obscurity has given her followers license to posture as if they're defenders of the great rational tradition, when in fact they discard it whenever they see fit. This rejection of common standards of logic is naturally not so trumpeted; when speaking from two sides of your mouth, usually one side is sotto voce. But it is nonetheless clearly discernable. For example, prominent Objectivist Harry Binswanger claims Objecto-logic is a "new, improved" version of standard bi-valent logic. "New"? How so? Improved in what way? Binswanger only offers a few unhelpful obscurities by way of explanation. Objectivist Lindsay Perigo goes even further. When discussing a perfectly valid syllogism, he simply rejects it wholesale: "'Standard logic' this may be; Objectivism, I submit, it ain't." Rarely do we get such clear-cut statements of how Objectivism's arguments are basically incompatible with the logical standards Rand claimed to uphold.

Usually Objectivists conceal their rejection of standard logic more evasively. For example, when trying to claim that Rand "derived" "ought" from "is" - they either suddenly equivocate and pretend that they didn't mean "derive" in a logical sense - in which case Rand has brilliantly solved a non-existent problem - or even more amusingly, when pressed simply refuse to produce the "derivation" in question. (You get the same equivocation when debating Rand's comment about "So much for the issue of the relation between 'is' and 'ought.' - "Oh, she didn't mean the logical relation" comes the reply!)

This double standard regarding classical logic fuels Objectivism's underlying cultist and irrationalist bent. In short: where logic clashes with Rand's pronouncements, it is logic that must be rejected. That, when examined, Objectivism's arguments can only survive by appealing to a special, conveniently obscure Objecto-logic in conjunction with a special Objecto-language tells us pretty clearly what's really going on here.


Colin Day said...

So Objectivists would not say that logic is about certain terms such as "for all", "for some", "and", "not". "or", etc. Or that the validity of a syllogism is about its form, and that a valid syllogism with nonsense premises is an instance of a form of logic, rather than an imitation.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Colin,

Objectivists simply parrot what Rand had to say about logic. Which in itself is obscure, and also mixed up with her "contextual" theory of knowledge. I could hazard a guess at how you might untangle it all into non-Objectivese, but what I think you'd find would be a rather embarrassing mess. I suspect this is one of the reasons why Kelley and Thomas's The Logical Structure of Objectivism" has remained stalled in beta for more than a decade. But perhaps I am wrong and all will be revealed one day...

Colin Day said...

Hi Daniel,

Sounds like another Duke Nukem Forever.

Daniel Barnes said...

Yes we can't do the Chinese Democracy gags any more.

Colin Day said...

But on a more serious note, is their inability to explicate the logical structure of Rand's thought due to its lack of logical structure? It's one thing to attempt to ground ethics in human nature, but quite another to formally derive ethics from statements about human nature. Also, while it may be easy to show that force and mind are mutually exclusive, is it easy to show that they are mutually exhaustive?

jeffrey smith said...

Perigo was making the simple point that nonsense premises result in...nonsense.

And if validation through logic is to have any value, it needs to be tied to reality--that is, non-nonsense premises.

(I'm defending Perigo. The temperature in Hell is now sub-zero.)

Colin Day said...

@jeffrey smith

If that is what he is saying, then I don't believe there is much disagreement, but he should distinguish between validity (having a valid logical structure) and soundness (being valid and having true premises.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Jeffrey,

That superficially appears to be the case.

In fact what he is doing, first and foremost, is rejecting mutual standards of argument.

That's the first problem. He's trying to establish a situation where Objectivists can mark their own homework. Now, how good are his arguments for doing so? I will attempt to examine this a little later. But meantime it might pay to consider the difficulties I now face in trying to examine his arguments if he has already rejected the standard rules of logic...

Xtra Laj said...


You are describing quite well what Perigo *thinks* he is doing. But the problem with Objectivists like Perigo is that because of their ignorance of philosophy's history in general, and their inability to discuss uncertainty with the honesty that most of us do, they never appreciate the reason why philosophers arrived at the conclusions they did in the first place.

As Colin pointed out, there is a standard distinction in logic between validity and soundness, and one simple way of pointing out how important it is is that you can show that someone arrived at a bad conclusion while for the most part exhibiting good reasoning, or that someone arrived at a true conclusion while utilizing bad reasoning.

gregnyquist said...

Colin: "...but he should distinguish between validity (having a valid logical structure) and soundness (being valid and having true premises."

Yes, that seems to be where the problem stems. I wouldn't in the least be surprised that Perigo either (1) doesn't know about this distinction; or (2) forgot about it. Rather than admitting the mistake, he's trying to rationalize his way out of it by claiming that validity is useless without soundness.

The problem is that Rand herself probably thought through these issues in much detail. She seems to have imbibed from Isabel Paterson a religious-like awe of logic without ever having gone to much trouble to understand both the strengths and limitations of logic. She instead used the pretense of admiration of logic as a substitute for empirical responsibility in her arguments, as if to suggest that by praising logic and denouncing illogic that will miraculously make one's rationalizations logical and true.

But logic is actually not very useful in a world where judgments are (1) based on incomplete and uncertain information, and/or (2) have to be made quickly; and/or (3) involve complexities greater than be mastered through linear thinking. In point of fact, most decisions people make are not strictly logical, nor could they be.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Yes, that seems to be where the problem stems. I wouldn't in the least be surprised that Perigo either (1) doesn't know about this distinction; or (2) forgot about it.

Possibly, but ghere is a larger pattern here. Basically, Objectivists seem deeply uncomfortable with standard logic. For example, the ARI's Peter Schwartz has attempted to argue, like Perigo, that “a seemingly true conclusion derived from false premises is a false conclusion”. He gets taken to school comprehensively here, here, and here by William Dwyer.

There is a certain desperation to this sort of thing. I think it stems from, as you say, Rand writing cheques with her mouth for logic that logic actually can't cash. Therefore the True Believers, when faced with this dilemma, will give up logic itself before they give up their belief in Rand's pronouncements.

Dragonfly said...

Rand may use the word "logic" abundantly, but the point is that she uses a different definition than anyone who really knows something about logic. Logic is the study of inference, which doesn't have to be tied to reality. The latter is the domain of science, which of course may use logical inference, but scientific truths (tied to reality) shouldn't be confused with logical truths. Mathematics is a field that is based on logical inference, not on reality.

Logical reasoning can be applied successfully to obtain knowledge about reality even if one or more of the premises are false, i.e. don't correspond to reality. That is namely exactly the point of the exercise: suppose hypothesis A is true (corresponds to reality), then you can by logical reasoning conclude that for example B must be true, where B is something that you can test or measure. When we see that B is false, we can conclude that A must also be false, in other words, we have falsified A.

That the original premise is false and doesn't correspond to reality doesn't mean that the logic that is used is somehow wrong or useless, on the contrary! Thanks to the use of that logic we have gained a little bit more knowledge about reality, namely that hypothesis A (which may for example seem to be obvious) is false.

I think that "logic" is for Objectivists some kind of buzzword, just like "rational". Their texts are peppered with such words while they have no idea what they really mean.

Greg may be right that in daily life we often cannot rely on logic alone, but I think that misses the point. Rand may talk a lot about logic, but she didn't really understand logic, as can be seen by the faulty reasoning in many of her theories.

Colin Day said...


I take Rand as discussing not so much formal logic, but logic in a broader sense, closer to an older use of the term in the sense of connecting ideas. It might have helped had she been more explicit.

Xtra Laj said...


Rand's use of the word "logic" in a sense different from common usage might have been deliberate and defiant. After all, it wouldn't be the first time she had done such.

Colin Day said...

Xtra Laj

I suspect that the use of her term "logic" is closer to that of Kant and Hegel in their respective works entitled "Logic" (I won't say whether or not her views on logic are similar to theirs). But yes, she does tend to use familiar terms in new ways, such as defining "mathematics" as the science of measurement.

Also, perhaps she should not have used the word "derive" for describing how she related the facts of human nature to ethics.

Daniel Barnes said...

@Colin, @Laj,

As Rand would say, "don't bother to examine a folly-ask yourself only what it accomplishes."

Anonymous said...

Can anyone here help wikipedia fill in the blanks?

"Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, Perigo was considered[by whom?] Radio New Zealand’s, then Television New Zealand’s, foremost political interviewer[citation needed]. He astonished many[who?], in a career-defining move, by quitting television work altogether in 1993, in the process denouncing TVNZ news and current affairs as "brain dead". Thereafter he returned to radio for several years, with a libertarian show on Radio Pacific and on the now defunct Radio Liberty[1]."

Who? By Whom & citation needed. As Ayn Rand would say...blank out!

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Surely it was more of a career-finishing move than a careerdefining one?

Steven Johnston

Colin Day said...

@Daniel Barnes:

It is not a good use of the term in the 20th century, but I wouldn't call it folly.