Sunday, August 29, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 6

Rand’s axioms: Existence exists. Now lets examine the Objectivist axioms, beginning with the axiom of existence. The Objectivist axioms are very instructive as to the dangers of an overly-speculative, rationalistic, largely verbal philosophy. Rand uses the vagueness of her axioms to confuse their tautological meaning with other more problematic meanings. This confusion is at the very heart of the Objectivist axioms.

When we say that some object such as a cat or dog exists, we mean that they have a substantive, independent existence “in reality." Unicorns aren’t recognized as existing or as "real," because no such entity exists in the world of fact and matter. But although unicorns don't exist as real animals, they could be said to exist as an idea or an object of the imagination. If we accept that unicorns exist in this sense, we must also admit that this "non-real" type of existence is very different from the existence that dogs and cats enjoy. It will not do to conflate these two types of existence.

When Objectivists insist that “existence exists,” in what sense do they mean it? In the cat and dog sense, or in the unicorn sense?

“The axiom of Existence states that something exists,” writes David Kelley. “This is the most basic fact of reality. It is simply the statement that there is reality; that whatever there is, is, that whatever one perceives is there to be perceived.”

From these statements, it seems that Objectivism endorses the cat and dog sense of existence. Existence exists becomes merely a pithy way of saying reality exists. Yet Kelley later on backs away from this interpretation: “Notice that [none of the Objectivst axioms make] any specific statement about the nature of what exists. For example, the axiom of existence does not assert the existence of a physical or material world as opposed to a mental one.” [The Logical Structure of Objectivism, 20-22]

So it would appear that existence is used in the unicorn sense. Existence exists merely indicates that something, however ephemeral, exists. It could be a mere idea or essence or image, entirely mythical, like the unicorn. If so, how can Kelley describe this idea as a “basic fact of reality” or equate the phrase existence exists with the phrase reality exists. If all that exists is a stream of essences trickling through consciousness, how can that be described as reality—or, even worse, as a fact of reality?

If we examine all this from a foundationalist mindset (a mindset which Objectivists must honor if they wish to remain consistent), it is clear that the Objectivist axiom of existence fails to deliver what it promises. In the sense that it is foundationally true and obvious (i.e., in the unicorn sense), it is merely an empty, mostly irrelevant tautology. In the sense that it is meaningful, it is neither obvious nor self-evident, but is problematic and conjectural. Kelley describes axioms as “statements validated directly by perceptual observation.” While all sane people believe that existence exists in the cat and dog sense of the term, this belief is not “validated” by direct perceptual observation. Our belief in reality (and it is only a belief) is based on something far more complex and enduring than mere observation. A man, if he has drunk enough whiskey, may observe a pink elephant riding on a unicorn. Yet to say that this pink elephant exists because the drunk is conscious of it is to lapse into palpable idealism. It is only when we have brought intelligence and our practical sense of things (which is based on memory, the “validity” of which is deeply problematical and hardly self-evident) to bear on this observation that we can determine that it is far from real.

To say that “something” exists in the unicorn sense of the term constitutes no great insight into the foundations of knowledge or reality. Who denies it? Objectivists are under the illusion that there exists this large contingent of philosophers that deny the axiom existence exists in the trivial, unicorn sense of the phrase. But strange to say, they cannot produce any such philosopher.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rand's Gas Chamber

The National Review's Jason Lee Steorts makes a good catch - and perhaps finds the underlying inspiration for Whittaker Chambers' infamous "To the gas chamber - go!" remark in his original review (Greg revisits Chambers' review here). He points out that "Atlas Shrugged" does in fact contain a gas chamber - the ghastly Winston Tunnel scene, where those who are unfortunate enough to hold the wrong philosophical premises get death by asphyxiation, their final moments approvingly illuminated by the torch of Randian justice.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 5

Memory and the Objectivist Axioms. Rand defined in axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.” The big three axioms in Objectivism are those of existence, consciousness, and identity. These, we would assume, are at the “base of knowledge, “irreducible primaries,” as Rand put it. Yet, irreducible and primary as they may be, they do rest on something else which Rand somehow fails to identify: namely, memory. All claims of knowledge rest on the trustworthiness of memory. Any claim of knowledge, "axiomatic" or otherwise, would be impossible were memory always false or an illusory faculty. Why is this so? It’s really quite simple. Any sort of analysis, including the analysis that yields the Objectivist axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity, presupposes the reliability of memory. All analysis involves the survey of particular datum (ideas or concepts) which require repetition. Consider, for example, a very simple syllogism:

Every man is mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

This syllogism involves the repetition of man, mortal, Socrates, and is. In order for this syllogism to be valid, we must be correct in identifying the first instance of each of these terms with the second instance, and this involves an act of memory. As Santayana explained:

Thus any survey which is analytic, so that it gives foothold for demonstration, or any definition following upon such analysis, presupposes the repetition of the same essences [i.e., concepts, ideas, etc.] in different contexts. This presupposition cannot be justified by the [datum] occupying the mind at any one time. No more can the assurance that a term remains the same in two successive instances and in two different contexts, nor that what is asserted by a predicate is asserted of the very subject which before had been intuited without that predicate. Explication is a process, a deduction is an event ; and although the force of logical analysis or synthesis does not depend on assuming that fact, but rather on ignoring it, this fact may be deduced from faith in the validity of demonstration, which would lapse if this fact were denied. The validity of demonstration is accordingly a matter of faith only, depending on the assumption of matters of fact incapable of demonstration. I must believe that I noted the terms of the argument separately and successively if I am to assert anything in identifying them or pronouncing them equivalent, or if the conclusion in which they appear now is to be relevant in any way to the premises in which they appeared originally. Thus any survey which is analytic, so that it gives foothold for demonstration, or any definition following upon such analysis, presupposes the repetition of the same essences in different contexts. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, 118]

Since Rand’s axioms cannot be identified without assuming memory, it would seem that memory would have to be included at the base of knowledge. So why didn’t Rand include it? Obviously, this is a major oversight on Rand’s part.

If Rand had not failed to include memory as part of her “base of knowledge,” how would she have gone about “validating” it? Most likely, she would have resorted to the same trick as with her other axioms: she would have contended that any attempt to deny memory must first assume it. However, not only is this line of reasoning open to the objections I raised to it in the previous post, it has about it a sophistical flavor which would be far more transparent were it not used to defend views which all sane people accept. People tend to accept any argument, no matter how suspect, when it is used to defend core beliefs. To argue that a principle is “self-evident” and “axiomatic” because it cannot be “denied” without first assuming it involves presuppositions that can easily be doubted and challenged. It hardly forms a criterion of “self-evidence,” and it is mere presumption to contend that it does. For if it did, why didn’t Rand resort to it more often? She could have made use of it, for instance, in “validating” concepts: for isn’t it true that concepts can only be denied by first making use of them? Yet Rand did not make use of this mode of argumentation in validating her concepts, instead opting for an argument that featured even greater opacity. Why was this? Perhaps because even she did not have complete trust in it.

The real error behind all this sterile rationalization upon which Rand attempted to build her metaphysics is the notion that matters of fact can be determined by logical, rhetorical, or moral constructions. Knowledge does not grow from such otiose web spinning. Knowledge arises to fill pressing animal needs, and grows and develops under the stress of the practical demands of everyday life and from scientific experimentation. Knowledge neither requires, nor can be justified, in logic or “self-evidence.” Foundationalism is as unnecessary as it is false and empty. Knowledge can only be justified (provisionally) either in daily practice or (better yet) through rigorous empirical (i.e., scientific) tests.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 4

Nothing is self-evident. Central to the Objectivist metaphysics is the notion that there are certain premises or “axioms” that are “self-evident.” This notion of self-evidence is at the very root of Rand’s foundationalism and must be challenged before we go any further.

Rand once claimed that, “ Nothing is self-evident except the material of sensory perception.” However, the Objectivist “axioms” are also regarded as self-evident, even though it is not clear in what sense these axioms can be regarded as “material of sensory perception” (or even what “material of sensory perception” is supposed to mean!). In dealing with the Objectivist metaphysics, “we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.”

David Kelley defined an axiom as “a self-evident principle that is implicit in all knowledge.” How is an axiom “self-evident”? What does this self-evidence rest on? Objectivists resort to a rather strained argument that convinces only those who wish to be convinced. “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it,” explained Rand [emphasis added]. In other words, according to Rand, an axiom is true and self-evident because you cannot refute it without assuming its validity. However, is this notion of how an axiom is true and self-evident also self-evident? And if it is not, how can Rand claim that her axioms are self-evident?

Here’s one problem: Rand claims that every one of her axioms are assumed in the attempt to deny them. How does she know this? Is she familiar with all the potential arguments that can be essayed against them? Of course not: she can’t be familiar with every attempt to deny them. Therefore her assertion is based on a kind of inference—namely, an inductive inference. Now whatever Rand or anyone else thinks of induction, such inferences can hardly be reckoned as self-evident. Therefore, her very belief that her axioms can only be denied by assuming them does not carry with it the stamp of self-evidence, which her axioms require to pass muster.

There’s another problem as well. It seems that Rand did not really understand extreme skepticism, that she may very well have been guilty of confusing the necessary presuppositions of her own philosophy with those of the skeptic. As Santayana noted,

The sceptic is not committed to the implications of other men’s language; nor can he be convicted out of his own mouth by the names he is obliged to bestow on the details of his momentary vision. There may be long vistas in it ; there may be many figures of men and beasts, many legends and apocalypses depicted on his canvas ; there may even be a shadowy frame about it, or the suggestion of a gigantic ghostly some thing on the hither side of it which he may call himself. All this wealth of objects is not inconsistent with solipsism, although the implication of the conventional terms in which those objects are described may render it difficult for the solipsist always to remember his solitude. Yet when he reflects, he perceives it; and all his heroic efforts are concentrated on not asserting and not implying anything, but simply noticing what he finds. Scepticism is not concerned to abolish ideas ; it can relish the variety and order of a pictured world, or of any number of them in succession, without any of the qualms and exclusions proper to dogmatism. Its case is simply not to credit these ideas, not to posit any of these fancied worlds, nor this ghostly mind imagined as viewing them. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, 15-16]

In short, Rand seems to have forgotten that denying existence means denying that the images of sense relate to an external, substantive world of fact, existing in time and space. Positing a world from the data of sense can never be “self-evident.” The only thing that is “evident” to the self is the passing rush of datum across the mind’s sentience. Yet none of these datum, taken by themselves, can be evidence of anything until we assume they are signs of outward things existing in reality. And that assumption, although true, is hardly “self-evident.”

Friday, August 06, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 3

Objectivism’s revolt against representationalism. David Kelley describes representationalism as follows:

[Representationalism] is the view that we are directly aware only of internal sense contents, from which we must infer external objects. (And this view is adopted because the representationalist shares with the traditional realist the assumption that direct awareness must be diaphanous [i.e., awareness must be passive and transparent, and there must exist no difference between the physical object in reality and how it appears in consciousness]. Every argument for representationalism reduces in one way or another to the core argument: Direct awareness is diaphanous; the perception of physical objects is not diaphanous; therefore perception is not direct.)

Kelley is guilty here of overstating his case. What he says about every argument for representationalism may be true of Descartes and Locke; but it’s hardly true of the American critical realists, of philosophers such as Arthur Lovejoy and George Santayana. Representationalism, to such philosophers, is merely an obvious corollary to the basic notions of realism. If both consciousness and matter exist, the perception of matter by consciousness must be achieved through some kind of medium, since a physical object cannot literally enter into consciousness. And since through experience we know that people have percepts, concepts, ideas and other mental datum that are obviously not identical with whatever material objects they may be associated with, representationalism, for the realist, becomes de rigueur. Objectivism, despite its rejection of representationalism, is, implicitly, a representationalist philosophy. Nearly every philosophy is at least implicitly representationalist. The only exception would be a philosophy that preached the solipsism of the present moment. As long as the philosopher believes that one idea or concept can serve as a symbol or a sign for something other than that idea or concept, he is, at least implicitly, a representationalist. Rand believes in concepts that are not identical to their object in reality. Therefore, she is a representationalist. Most idealists believe in time, that is, in a past and a future, and in a memory that can know the past. But what is memory but a representation of what is not present in consciousness? Therefore, idealists are representationalists as well, at least in terms of the past.

Why does Objectivism reject representationalism? According to Rand's chief disciples, representationalism (allegedly) holds that individuals can only know their representations—that is, the sense data perceived by the mind. The objects in reality that this sense data “represents” are “unknowable” (as Kant argued) and at best can only be inferred. In short, representationalism cuts the mind off from reality, leaving the mind only with the representations.

Now this is a caricature of representationalism inspired by the confusions of Immanuel Kant. Philosophers such as Kant believed that knowledge should be certain, and so they were driven to ask the question: If I know things only by representations, are not the representations the only things I know?

George Santayana answered this question as follows:

This challenge is fundamental, and so long as the assumptions which it makes are not challenged in turn, it drives critics of knowledge inexorably to scepticism of a dogmatic sort, I mean to the assertion that the very notion of knowledge is absurd…. Plato and many other philosophers … have identified science with certitude, and consequently entirely condemned what I call knowledge (which is a form of animal faith) or relegated it to an inferior position, as something merely necessary for life…. Knowledge is no such thing…. Knowledge ... is belief: belief in a world of events, and especially of those parts of it which are near the self, tempting or threatening it. This belief is native to animals, and precedes all deliberate use of intuitions as signs or descriptions of things... Furthermore, knowledge is true belief. It is such an enlightening of the self by intuitions arising there, that what the self imagines and asserts of the collateral thing, with which it wrestles in action, is actually true of that thing. Truth in such presumptions or conceptions does not imply adequacy, nor a pictorial identity between the essence in intuition [i.e, the representation] and the constitution of the object. Discourse is a language, not a mirror. The images in sense are parts of discourse, not parts of nature : they are the babble of our innocent organs under the stimulus of things ; but these spontaneous images, like the sounds of the voice, may acquire the function of names ; they may become signs, if discourse is intelligent and can recapitulate its phases, for the things sought or encountered in the world. The truth which discourse can achieve is truth in its own terms, appropriate description: it is no incorporation or reproduction of the object in the mind. The mind notices and intends ; it cannot incorporate or reproduce anything not an intention or an intuition…. Therefore any degree of inadequacy and originality is tolerable in discourse, or even requisite, when the constitution of the objects which the animal encounters is out of scale with his organs, or quite heterogeneous from his possible images. A sensation or a theory, no matter how arbitrary its terms (and all language is perfectly arbitrary), will be true of the object, if it expresses some true relation in which that object stands to the self, so that these terms are not misleading as signs, however poetical they may be as sounds or as pictures. [Scepticism and Animal Faith, 170-180]

Rand and her disciples take an entirely different approach to the question If I know things only by representations, are not the representations the only things I know? They simply evade it. Objectivism claims that human beings have direct awareness through perception of external objects. For an Objectivist, direct means: without conceptual processing. This, however, merely evades the problem by redefining the term direct. What is at issue is whether perception uses representations: and all the evidence available to us suggests very strongly that perception is every bit as symbolic and representative as is conception. The very fact that a percept is not identical to its object establishes that the percept is a representation. Visual perception clearly brings forth, within the mind, a field of images. If there exist any doubt on this subject, one merely has to observe that the lens and cornea of the human eye actually invert or turn the image displayed on the retina upside down. The brain then proceeds to turn the image field right side up for viewing in the field of consciousness. Hence what we “see” “directly” in consciousness are images, not the physical objects. After all, the mind, when it flips the image field right-side up, does not flip right side up the real world. It flips over a field of representations. Moreover, if individuals are told to wear special glasses that reverse the field of vision, so that the image is displayed on the retina right-side up, while they at first perceive the world as upside down, if the wear the glasses long enough, the brain automatically reorientates the field of vision right-side up. So visual perception can hardly be seen as “direct.” Consciousness, before it can become aware of material objects, must translate the data read by the senses into a language that the consciousness can read and interpret. The point of perception is not to duplicate or mirror physical objects, but, as Santayana put it, to express “some true relation in which that object stands to the self.” Representationalism, far from rendering knowledge impossible, provides the explanation of how it is that one mode of existence (i.e., consciousness) can become cognizant of a very different mode (i.e., the physical world). Those who equate representationalism with “knowing only our representations” are guilty of making a false demand of knowledge. They demand that knowledge be certain and direct. Knowledge is no such thing. Knowledge attempts to make us aware of objects existing outside of consciousness. It is transitive and symbolic and conjectural right from the very start. Whether described as “perceptual” or “conceptual,” knowledge is indirect, mediated by symbols, which help reduce physical objects to a scale amenable to human intelligence. No logical proof or foundationalist rationalization can validate this indirect, symbolic knowledge. It involves a conjectural leap. We must take nature by the hand, and assume the symbols which arise in consciousness represent objects or events in a physical world. Once we take this leap, we will find our faith justified, not by logic, but by praxis. It is the practical necessities of life, the urgent biological needs of the human organism, that force us to take this conjectural leapand become tacit and practical realists, despite whatever foundationalist or idealist misgivings we may entertain.