Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 13

Objectivism & the paranormal. The assumption that “paranormal” events are unreal or impossible may be convenient and prudent in daily life; but it is, after all, only an assumption. To deduce such an assumption from “self-evident” axioms in the manner of Objectivism goes very much against the grain of empirical responsibility. The evidence of experience is far from supporting the Objectivist position, and logically, this position is untenable. As Santayana would remind us, “Logically, everything is possible; and if a certain sequence of events happens not to be found in our experience, nothing proves that it may not occur beyond.” [The Idea of Christ in the Gospels, 79]

The general view prevailing among Objectivist is that not only are paranormal occurrences unreal, but it is a waste of time to investigate such phenomenon. Yet given the millions of evidentiary claims that have been made on behalf of paranormal events, it would seem a subject ripe for investigation. If, as is eminently plausible, the Objectivists are right about the unreality of the paranormal, then an empirical investigation will merely serve to corroborate this hypothesis. If, on the other hand, there is discovered some residuum of truth in them, we will have learned more about this strange world that we find ourselves knocking about in.

To understand what is wrong with the Objectivist approach to the issue, it is instructive to compare it with Hume's take on a related issue. In his essay “On Miracles,” Hume set down a general rule for evaluating claims regarding miracles (which can be seen as a type of paranormal phenomenon):

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: Because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), "that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior." When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

The advantage of Hume’s approach is that it is rigorously empirical. Hume makes no assumptions based on logical, rhetorical, or moral principles but attempts to settle the issue in relation to experience interpreted via human intelligence. Science can extend Hume’s approach by integrating it with a detailed experimental methodology. Hypotheses can then be formed and tested. Results of tests can be subjected to rigorous peer review. Hence all strange phenomenon, whether deemed as miracles or merely as the paranormal, can be made the objects of scientific investigation. Only then can we hope to have any real understanding of why so many people claim to have these experiences.

The American philosopher C. S. Peirce implored us to “Never block the path of inquiry.” Yet this is precisely the consequences of those metaphysical systems which pretend they can determine matters of fact on the basis of “self-evident” axioms. But no principle concerning matters of fact can ever be self-evident. Knowledge is fundamentally transitive and indirect. It involves becoming cognizant of something outside of consciousness, that exists on a different scale from the human mind within a different realm of existence. To arrive at true knowledge of facts requires a great deal of hard work and care. Progress in knowledge requires frequent contact with the relevant facts. When this contact becomes tenuous or is lost altogether, the intellect soon becomes lost in a thicket of arid speculations.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 12

Objectivism & Physics. David Hume once remarked that, while errors in religion might be dangerous, those in philosophy are “only ridiculous.” Metaphysical errors are also, in the main, "only ridiculous." They are ridiculous rather than dangerous because they have no effect on conduct. A philosopher may have the most extravagant notions of reality, yet after he’s finished propagating his peculiar species of balderdash, he goes about his business like everyone else and, despite his absurd doctrines, has no difficulty finding his way home. “Nature is always too strong for principle,” is how Hume described the phenomenon.

There are many far worse systems of metaphysics than Rand’s. Yet the very badness of these systems renders them entirely impotent. They are so bad that no one could ever make practical use of them. They are merely a kind of poetry that tender minded people lisp to themselves. Since much of Rand’s metaphysics supports notions allied to common sense, it has more potential to, by leading people astray, exercise a baleful effect. These bad effects stem from three aspects of the Objectivist metaphysics: (1) its attempt to determine matters of fact through logical and rhetorical constructions; (2) its conviction that reality is “logical” (i.e., “contradictions cannot exist in reality”); and (3) its belief that philosophy has a “veto power” over science.

Consider some consequences of these three principles, starting with Peikoff’s assertions about philosophy’s veto power:

Philosophy certainly has a veto power over any subject if it violates principles established philosophically. So, if Heisenberg says for instance in the principle of uncertainty that causality is a myth or has been overturned on the subatomic level, you can throw out Heisenberg's theory on that grounds alone. And the same is true for the idea of something proceeding out of nothing. In other words, that is something proceeding causelessly, because there was nothing before it and it violates the very meaning of nothing….

Now, if you consult Dave Harriman's course, you will see that quantum mechanics, the theory of everything, string theory, is riddled with contradictions and is arbitrary, 'cause it reflects the corrupt epistemology dominant in the intellectual world.

This Dave Harriman, mentioned by Peikoff, is an amusing enough fellow. His attacks on relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory, etc. are filled with clever quips and amusing juxtapositions. Consider what he has to say of space:

I want to start by stating unequivocally, there is no such thing as “space,” whether viewed as the infinite void of the Greek atomists, or the receptacle of Plato, or the absolute cosmic reference plane of Newton, or the acrobatic and curving frame of Einstein, or the final frontier of James P. Kirk. There is no such entity.

These little sallies are accompanied by Harriman’s protestations that he accepts all the facts brought forth to support Einstienian relativity and quantum mechanics, he just questions the "interpretations." However, given how entangled the interpretations are with the facts, this just won’t do. The interpretations of relativity and quantum mechanics are strange because the facts themselves are strange. Consider the famous double-slit experiment:

Let us assume, for argument's sake, that the interpretation offered in this video is wrong. If so, then what would Peikoff or Harriman put in its place? What would constitute a "logical" interpretation of this bizarre phenomenon? Objectivists seem to believe that ordinary perception provides us with a “logical” world, and therefore that all of reality should behave as grosser objects do in perception. Since tennis balls don’t divide in two and reunite when shot through double slits, it is assumed that photons can’t do likewise. But who decided that human perception, interpreted via common sense, is the final arbiter of what’s possible in reality, particularly at the quantum level? Where’s the justification for that? Nature, not the human mind, is the standard of what is possible in nature. The reason quantum reality seems so strange is that our minds have not evolved to understand it. Our ancestors had no experience of it; knowledge of it was not necessary for their survival and reproductive capabilities; so the mind, being innocent of its oddities, is perplexed by them. But nothing is truly perplexing to a mind willing to accept nature on nature’s terms, rather than the mind's terms. Peikoff and Harriman, by allowing the Objectivist metaphysics to lead them astray, are no different than earlier metaphysicians who attempted to impose their sense of things on reality. Plato thought that the orbits of the planets had to be circular because the circle was a "divine" form. Peikoff's conviction that reality must be "logical" is no more credible.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 11

Logic and reality. Chris Sciabarra sums up the Objectivist position on this issue better than any Objectivist:

Like Aristotle, Rand believes that logic is inseparable from reality and knowledge. She states: “If logic has nothing to do with reality, it means the Law of Identity is inapplicable to reality.” But, as Peikoff explains: “The Law of Contradiction … is a necessary and ontological truth which can be learned empirically.” … [For Rand,] logic is certainly a law of thought, insofar as it is “the art of non-contradictory identification.” But logic is true in thought only because contradictions cannot exist in reality. Rand writes: “An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole.” [Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, 139-140]

What on earth does it mean to say that contradictions cannot exist in reality? What kind of processes or events is this supposed to rule out? What would a “contradiction in reality” look like? What does it mean, in empirical terms, to say that an atom cannot be a non-atom? Or is it merely that we simply cannot conceive such “contradictions in reality”? But if we cannot conceive what a “contradiction in reality” might be, what is the point of saying such a phenomena cannot exist? If we cannot even imagine its existence, it has no relevance, either as an error or a falsehood. So again, what is this mythical gremlin, the “contradiction in reality,” and why should we bother our heads with it?

Rand’s confusion here runs deep, and stems from confusing different aspects or realms of existence and trying to assume that logic, in order to be cognitively useful, must be valid in every domain or realm of existence. The philosophers George Santayana and Karl Popper, working entirely independent of one another, distinguished at least three realms or “worlds”:

  1. Realm of Matter/World 1: the physical world, the world of matter existing in time and space.
  2. Realm of Spirit/World 2: consciousness, the world of mental objects and events.
  3. Realm of Essence/World 3: the world of ideas, meanings, theories, problems, etc.

While Santayana’s realms of matter and spirit are largely identical to Popper’s worlds 1 and 2, there are important difference between the Santayana’s realm of essence and Popper’s world 3. Santayana’s realm of essence includes all possible meanings, whether anyone has experienced them or not. Popper, on the other hand, tends to confine his world 3 to those ideas or meanings produced by the human mind. These differences are not important for the points I will be trying to make about logic and reality in this post.

Now where does logic actually hold true? Does it hold true in all three realms/worlds? Or in only one or two of them? Or in none of them? Well, let’ s take a look, first, at the realm of matter. Does it hold true for that? No, it doesn’t. This is demonstrated by an experiment proposed by Karl Popper. Popper begins by noting that when a logical statement such as 2+2=4 is applied to reality (as when someone puts 2+2 apples in basket),

it becomes a physical theory, rather than a logical one; and as a consequence, we cannot be sure whether it remains universally true. As a matter of fact, it does not. It may hold for apples, but it hardly holds for rabbits. If you put 2+2 rabbits in a basket, you may soon find 7 or 8 in it. Nor is it applicable to such things as drops. If you put 2+2 drops in a dry flask, you will never get four out of it. If you answer that these examples are not fair because something has happened to the rabbits and the drops, and because the equation ‘2+2=4’ only applies to objects in which nothing happens, then my answer is that, if you interpret it in this way, then it does not hold for ‘reality’ (for in ‘reality’ something happens all the time), but only for an abstract world of distinct objects in which nothing happens. To the extent, it is clear, to which our real world resembles such an abstract world, for example, to the extent to which our apples do not rot, or rot only very slowly, or to which our rabbits or crocodiles do not happen to breed; to the extent, in other words, to which physical conditions resemble pure logical or arithmetical operation of addition, to the same extent does arithmetic remain applicable. But this statement is trivial.” [Conjectures and Refutations, 212]

So logic does not in all respects hold good for the physical world. What about the mental world? Here I draw on Santayana’s testimony:

Now as a matter of fact there is a psychological sphere to which logic and mathematics do not apply. There, the truth is dramatic. That 2+2=4 is not true of ideas. One idea added to another, in actual intuition [i.e., in conscious experience], makes still only one idea, or it makes three: for the combination, with the relations perceived, forms one complex essence, and yet the original essences remain distinct, as elements in this new whole. This holds true of all moral, aesthetic, and historical units: they are merged and reconstituted with every act of apperception. [Realm of Truth, 410]

Where, then, is logic fully applicable? According to Popper, “Logical necessity exists only in world 3. Logical connection, logical relations, logical necessities, logical incompatibility — all that exists only in world 3. So it exists in our theories about nature. In nature this does not exist, there is no such thing.” [Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem, 41]

Santayana regards logic to be “merely a parabolic excursion in the realm of essence.” If a logical construction is true, this truth derives, not from logic, but from conformity to the order of nature.

The only serious value of … logical explorations would lie in their possible relevance to the accidents of existence. It is only in that relation and in that measure that mathematical science would cease to be mere play with ideas and would become true: that is, in a serious sense, would become knowledge. Now the seriousness of mathematics comes precisely of its remarkable and exact relevance to material facts, both familiar and remote. And this in surprising measure. For when once any essence falls within the sphere of truth, all its essential relations do so too: and the necessity of these relations will, on that hypothesis, form a necessary complement to a proposition that happens to be true. This same necessity, however, would have nothing to do with truth if the terms it connects were not exemplified in existence. In this way mathematical calculations far outrunning experiment often [but not always!] turn out to be true of the physical world, as if, per impossible, they could be true a priori. [ibid, 409]

In other words, when a logical proposition turns out to be true, the truth of that statement arises, not from its logic, but by the fact that it is exemplified by the real world. It is the real world, not logic, which makes a thing true. Facts, nature, reality constitute the standard of truth, not logic. I would also note that, while there exists an infinite number of logical expressions (after all, every mathematic equation is a logical expression, and there are an infinite number of such expressions), only a small fraction of those will find exemplification in existence. Logical validity is therefore no warrant of truth.

If existence were actually logical, as conceived by Objectivists, then reality would have to be a system of ideal relations, like we find imagined in the idealist reveries of Plato and Hegel. In other words, this view only makes sense on idealist assumptions. But on realist assumptions, reality may be anything it pleases. It is not for the mind to determine how reality must be. On the contrary, the mind must accept whatever it finds. And since we have not experienced every possible fact of nature, all theories about facts are ultimately conjectural, and must be revised or overthrown if a fact is discovered that contradicts them. Facts, therefore, for all practical intents, are contingent — which effectively means, alogical and "unnecessary." If a fact contradicts one of our theories about reality, it is the theory that has to go, not the fact.

I suspect there will be Rand apologists who will protest that Objectivism denies no facts. Well, that’s not so clear, as we shall see in my next post.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Objectivism & “Metaphysics,” Part 10

Causality. In the Logical Structure of Objectivism, David Kelley makes the following observation:
Notice that neither [the axiom of existence or the axiom of identity 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 axiom of identity does not assert that all objects are composed of form and matter, as Aristotle said. These things may be true, but they are not axiomatic; the axioms assert the simple and inescapable fact that whatever there is, it is and it is something.
Very well. Now consider what Rand draws from these very same axioms:
To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the law of identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe—from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life—are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved.
In other words, she draws from these axioms: (1) that the universe is permanent and can neither be destroyed nor created; (2) the universe is not ruled by will or chance, but by the “law of identity”; (3) everything that happens is caused by the “identities” of the elements involved. She also implies that the basic constituents of the universe, whatever they may happen to be, are non-mental (i.e., atoms, particles, or forms of energy). How does Rand draw all these things from these axioms when, according to Kelley (who, in this instance, is being entirely orthodox) these axioms only assert that "something" distinguishable exists?

Here we stumble upon another one of those equivocations that are so plentiful within the philosophical swamps of Objectivism. On the one hand, we’re told by Kelley that “The axioms and their corollaries are not rich in specific content that would allow specific inferences.” And yet Rand give us specific inferences: the universe is permanent, it’s not ruled by chance, causes stem from identities, etc.

Objectivists regard causality as a “corollary” of the axiom of identity. Leonard Peikoff defines “corollary” as “a self-evident implication of already established knowledge.” [OPAR, 15] From a logical point of view, this is all very baffling. What, after all, is meant by saying that the Objectivist axioms don’t allow for “specific” inferences? What, exactly, is supposed to be “specific” about the inference? The conclusion? The applicability of the inference? Is a corollary a "specific" inference? By not explaining clearly what he means, Kelley leaves ample room to weasel out of any logical difficulties that he may stumble into. Peikoff is no more fortunate in his formulation. His declaration that a corollary constitutes a “self-evident implication” appears to contradict Ayn Rand’s assertion that “Nothing is self-evident except the material of sensory perception.”

Since causality is not perceived, how can it be regarded as “self-evident”? Even on Objectivist grounds, this appears to be an absurdity. And so it is when we examine the Objectivist argument more closely. Rand states the “argument" as follows:
The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action [wrote Rand]. All actions are caused by entities. The nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the entities that act; a thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature.
David Kelley fleshes this out as follows:
Causality is the principle that entities act in accordance with their natures. Because actions are aspects of the entities that act, the actions are part of the identity of the entity. But the law of causality also says an action is not a primary, independent aspect of a thing’s nature, unrelated to other aspects. The law says that any action depends on underlying attributes of the thing, such as its mass, material composition, and internal structure.
The basic confusion at the root of the Objectivist view of causality is a conflation of logical identity with identification. Logical identity, as I explained in my last post, is merely the identity of a term of thought with itself. Identification, on the other hand, involves, among other things, determining which term of thought will stand as a symbol for an object, property, event or process taking place in the “real” world (i.e., the world outside of consciousness). Identification of specific entities does involve (as is suggested by Objectivism) noticing the attributes of those entities, but the ascription of an attribute to an object does not involve logical identity, it involves predication. White is not identical to swan; it is predicated of swans. As I noted in my previous post, predication does not assert that A is A, but that A is B (that is to say, A has attribute B). The phrases Swans are swans and Swans are white are not logically compatible. They use the term are (the plural of is) in different senses. To imply an equality (or, worse, an identity) is to lapse into equivocation.

I know that there will be Rand apologists who will insist that Rand does not lapse into equivocation. But in point of fact, by assuming that identity (in the logical "A is A" sense of identity) is the same as identification, she is conflating them. Since identification involves predication, it is a logical error to confuse it with logical identity. The attributes of objects, including their causal regularities, are not governed, nor can they be discovered or validated, exclusively by logic. Statements of predication, if they have any relevance to reality, are empirical through and through. The fact that dogs bark and cats meow could never be discovered by logic alone. The attribution of causation to things is no less empirical. Causation is not a logical process; it is neither governed by logic nor discoverable exclusively by logic. The fact that fire produces smoke can never be deduced from pure logic. Since causation is empirical through and through, a matter of fact rather than a matter of logic, it is pure sophistry to try to "validate" or derive it from some logical or "axiomatic" principle. As philosopher John Hospers explains:
"A is A" is ... a tautology, but an important one: every time a person is guilty of a logical inconsistency he is saying A and then in the next breath not-A. Thus "A is A" is something of which we need to remind ourselves constantly. But it is not … an empirical statement: we don't have to go around examining cats to discover whether they are cats. (We might have to examine this creature to discover whether it is a cat.) But ... statements of what causes what, such as "Friction causes heat," are empirical statements; we can only know by perceiving the world whether they are true. How ... can the Law of Causality be merely an application of the Law of Identity? You could manipulate the Law of Identity forever and never squeeze out anything as specific as a single causal statement.

But ... I could see how [Rand’s] confusion might be generated. A tautology can easily look like something else. "A thing acts in accordance with its nature" might be one example. This might be taken as an instance of the Law of Identity: if a creature of type X acts in accordance with laws A, B, C, and this creature doesn't do that, then it isn't an X. If dogs bark and growl and this creature hisses and meows, it isn't a dog; that is, we wouldn't call anything a dog that did this. So we can plausibly classify the statement about what we call "a thing's nature" as special cases of the Law of Identity. But this ... tells us nothing about the world, but only about how we are using words like "dog" and "cat." [“Conversations with Ayn Rand,” italics added]
Unfortunately, Rand was under the illusion that her law of identity applied to the empirical world, rather than merely to formal logic or to the usage of terms. She was under that great illusion of metaphysical philosophers—namely, that matters of fact can be determined by logical constructions. They cannot be so determined. While some truths may seem so obvious as to seem necessary by logic (and therefore discoverable through logical reasoning), this necessity, as Santayana noted, merely “parades the helplessness of the mind to imagine anything different.” As Santayana explicated the point:

Are there no truths obviously necessary to common sense? If I have mislaid my keys, mustn’t they be somewhere? If a child is born, mustn’t he have a father? Must is a curious word, pregnant for the satirist: it seems to redouble the certainty of a fact, while really admitting that the fact is only conjectural…. Spirit [i.e., mind] was born precisely … to see the contingency and finitude of every fact, and to imagine as many alternatives and extensions as possible, some of which may be true, and may put that casual fact in its true setting. Truth is groped after, not imposed, by the presumptions of the intellect: and if these presumptions often are true, the reason is that they are based upon and adjusted to the actual order of nature, which is thoroughly unnecessary, and most miraculous when most regular. [Realms of Being, 417, italics added]
Causality is neither a product of logic or necessity. In fact, it is not a product of any idea. Rand’s approach to metaphysics would only be valid if the world followed ideas by necessity, as it did according to Plato. But if ideas merely describe the world, then no matter of fact can be regarded as logically necessary. Logical necessity only makes sense if the world follows logic—and most of the evidence at our disposal suggests that logic most emphatically does not hold any sort of empire over fact, but that, rather, logic is a tool useful for testing claims of knowledge. Consideration of this issue leads to another of Rand’s errors, namely, her conviction that reality is “logical.” I will address this delusion in my next post.

The McCaskey Objectischism

Neil Parille gives us the lowdown on the latest bustup in Randland.

The latest Objectischism is underway. Schisms, excommunications, denunciations and sometimes even recantations are prominent features of Objectivist life and form an entertaining Kremlinology to those of us interested in the Objectivist microverse. While not as cosmic an event as the David Kelley excommunication in the 1980s - thus far only John McCaskey has been excommunicated from the movement - this one seems to be a sign of growing Objectivist frustration with Leonard Peikoff and the tone of orthodox Objectivism.

John McCaskey is a well credentialled Objectivist scholar. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University in the history of science, where he currently teaches. He was, until recently, on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written for the Objective Standard, the house organ of the ARI. He has spoken at Objectivist Conferences. McCaskey appears to be tight with orthodox Objectivist figureheads such as Allan Gotthelf and Harry Binswanger, but has “rarely spoken” to Peikoff.

McCaskey founded The Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship in 2001. The Foundation, which was so closely tied to the ARI that it was absorbed by it in 2008, may be the most interesting “special ops” of the ARI. The Foundation sponsors Objectivist professors (always orthodox) at universities through the United States. Intentionally or not it gives the illusion of greater Objectivist penetration in the academic world than it probably has. The Foundation received national attention in 2007 when Texas State University at San Marcos turned down a Foundation grant because of the dogmatic nature and intolerance of orthodox Objectivism.
The roots of this latest schism go back a ways. According to orthodox Objectivism, Rand solved the problem of universals in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The biggest remaining problem in philosophy was the problem of induction, a thorny question which, by common consent, no completely satisfactory solution has been given. Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir,” teamed up with physicist David Harriman to solve the problem and show how induction worked in science. The result was Peikoff’s 1999 lecture course Induction in Physics and Philosophy which “present[s], for the first time, the solution to the problem of induction—and thereby complete[s], in every essential respect, the validation of reason.” The solution apparently built on Rand’s theory of concepts and, if true, would be a significant extension of Objectivism.

Peikoff and Harriman were for a time collaborating on a book on induction; however Peikoff dropped out of the project deciding to spend more time on his “DIM Hypothesis” book (which, like some other Peikoff book projects, hasn’t appeared). In July 2010, Harriman’s book – The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics – was finally published. The book contains an introduction by Peikoff, who calls it “the first mayor application of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to a field other than philosophy.” Harriman states that theory of induction and concept formation in the book is Peikoff’s. He also acknowledges that the book was funded by the ARI. The history of science isn’t my strong suit, but the Harriman book follows the general Objectivist view of intellectual history: good guys with good (i.e., proto-Objectivist) ideas, bad guys with bad ideas, good ideas leading to good results, bad ideas leading to failure. All contrary evidence is ignored or explained away, as when Harriman claims that Galileo’s notes in his journals that suggested he was a rationalist who used “thought experiments” don’t accurately convey what Galileo was doing. (Harriman, as we will see, is apparently an expert when it comes to what people really mean in their journals.)

Harriman is controversial in Objectivist circles for his (at least partial) opposition to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He also thinks the big bang theory is a “creation myth” (duly noting that it was developed by Catholic priest). He edited The Journals of Ayn Rand which, according to Jennifer Burns, he rewrote in the process to make it conform to Objectivist orthodoxy. As summarized by Laissez Faire Book’s review:
Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”
The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”

In 2000 he ganged up with Leonard Peikoff to attack Allan Gotthelf’s incredibly fawning On Ayn Rand for its overly academic style. Harriman holds masters degrees in philosophy and physics. He would be a second-tier figure in the Objectivist world if it weren’t for his association with Peikoff.

Orthodox Objectivism has well credentialed physicists such as Keith Lockith (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin) and Travis Norsen (Ph.D. from the University of Washington). Both have lectured at Objectivist Conferences and have lectures sold by the ARI’s bookstore. Although Rand didn’t write anything on the philosophy of science, oral tradition has it that she was skeptical of what little she knew of modern physics. Peikoff doesn’t appear to know much about physics and what little he knows is from Harriman. (In Peikoff’s 2006 DIM lectures Peikoff said he had never heard of Richard Feynman, probably one of the few household names in physics in recent years.) It’s been rumored that there is discontent with the preeminent position Harriman and Peikoff have when it comes to physics.

The first sign a schism was on July 25, when Norsen’s review of The Logical Leap appeared on Amazon. He called it “valuable but disappointing” and gave it three starts (out of five). The review is lengthy, and takes aim specifically at chapter 1 (which is Peikoff’s contribution):
To begin with, I think the three key ideas presented in chapter 1 are important and correct. There *are* first-level generalizations which support and make possible the higher-level sorts of generalizations that scientists are (and unfortunately most philosophers concerned with induction have been) primarily concerned with. And as a matter of epistemological methodology, it is right to focus on these simplest, foundational cases to construct a theory to guide us in the more complex cases. I also think it is profoundly true that causal connections are sometimes perceivable, and Harriman is absolutely right to stress this as the fundamental answer to the skeptical views that emerge ultimately from a Humean, sensationalist account of perception. I would even go so far as to say that this idea (which, however, is not novel -- see for example the important book "Causal Powers" by Madden and Harre) is the key to solving the problem of induction. And second, the idea that generalizations are formed -- i.e., propositions are rendered general -- via the application of (open-ended) concepts to particular causal instances, strikes me as very interesting and pregnant.

However, even at the level of dealing with examples like "balls roll," I find that the book does not go far enough in clarifying and developing these ideas. I see rather large gaps in the account of first-level inductions presented in chapter 1, and these gaps seriously undermine the project of showing, through the subsequent history-of-science case studies, how induction works in physics.
Something must have been “going down” because on August 11 and August 23 Gotthelf and Binswanger - a pair practically Pynchonesquese in their reclusiveness - posted brief five-star reviews on Amazon praising Harriman’s book. Prior to these reviews Gotthelf and Binswanger had a combined eleven reviews on Amazon going back to 2000.

It now turns out that McCaskey had for some time been critical of The Logical Leap, although he never discussed his concerns with Peikoff. Peikoff however got wind of McCaksey’s criticism and took it as a personal attack on him. In an incredible email dated August 30 from Peikoff to ARI legal counsel Arline Mann (and cc’d to ARI director Yaron Brook) Peikoff made it clear that someone had to go and it wasn’t going to be him:
When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me – I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism – is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded someone has to go and will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom.
I do understand how much money M has brought to ARI, and how many college appointments he has gotten and is still getting. As Ayn would have put it, that raises him one rung in Hell, but it does not convert Objectivism into pragmatism.

Three days later McCaskey resigned from the ARI and the Foundation he started.
The day after that McCaskey reviewed The Logical Leap on Amazon, giving it three stars. The money quotes:
Readers of the book should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves.

Generally, scholars who try to recreate the development of scientific concepts in the minds of great scientists are struck by how successful these scientists are in making propositional generalizations while still forming--and often themselves never fully forming--the concepts that constitute the generalizations. The narrative these scholars present (using Harriman's metaphor, not theirs) is not that a fully formed concept comes into the mind of the scientist who then uses it as a green light to an inductive propositional generalization, but that a partly formed concept serves as a flickering greenish light to a partial generalization, which acts as a less flickering, somewhat greener light to a better concept, which in turn improves the generalization, which then improves the concept, and so on, until well-defined concepts and associated propositional generalizations emerge fully formed together (at which point, the subjectivist says, "See, it's all just a matter of definitions.") Most scholars find the process of scientific progress less linear than Harriman indicates and much more iterative and spiral.

I cannot say that the conventional narratives (or my own) are all correct and Harriman's all wrong--certainly they are not--nor do I want to say how any inaccuracies would affect the theory of induction presented in The Logical Leap. I merely want to alert readers unfamiliar with the field that Harriman's narratives are often not the ones accepted by other scholars who research the conceptual development of great scientists and often not the ones that the scientists themselves give.

The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal; a theory that grounds inductive inference in concept-formation is welcome indeed. But the theory is still inchoate. If it is to be widely adopted, it will need to be better reconciled with the historical record as the theory gets fleshed out and refined.

What to make of this latest schism? It’s never easy to determine what is really happening in the noumenal realm of orthodox Objectivism. Even long-time Objectivism watchers with degrees in Kremlinology are having a hard time here. But let’s make some guesses:

1. Now that Harriman’s book is out and Peikoff has given the imprimatur to Harrimanesque physics, orthodox ARI physicists have decided that they aren’t going to let a philosopher with little knowledge of physics dictate how their work is done.

2. Objectivists are getting tired of Peikoff’s reign. With Peikoff’s retirement from the daily affairs of the ARI and his age they think can get along just fine without him.

3. Peikoff’s behavior has become increasingly erratic. In 2006 he issued a fatwa against anyone who was considering not voting Democratic, going so far as to claim that they didn’t understand Objectivism. He recently made a similar statement concerning Objectivists who believe that Moslems have a legal right to build a Mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City. He has called for a nuclear attack on Iran. When he speaks at an Objectivist Conference a disclaimer is published that his attendance doesn’t mean he agrees with everything other people say.

4. Peikoff, for whatever contributions he has made to Objectivism, has actually hurt Rand’s reputation. For example, in 2005 he sponsored James Valliant’s cracked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, a book which, far from rescuing Rand, made her look worse. He has permitted people like Harriman to rewrite the published version of Rand’s posthumous material in classic cult of personality fashion. Peikoff said in 1987 that Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was “arbitrary” and would eventually be countered by an authorized biography. No such biography has appeared, but two independent biographies were published in 2009 both generally supportive of Branden’s. It must be increasingly obvious to younger Objectivists that the Peikoff line that Rand’s only character flaw was occasionally blowing her top was dishonest.
In 1968, Rand kicked out Nathaniel Branden (a psychologist). In 1976 she so harangued Alan Blumenthal (a psychiatrist) that he quit. Shortly before her death she booted out Robert Hessen (a historian). Leonard Peikoff has excommunicated not only David Kelly but George Reisman (an economist) and his wife Edith Packer (a psychologist).

The McCaskey Objectischism continues a trend of Rand and Peikoff breaking with independent thinkers who for ideological or personal reasons don’t toe the party line.
- Neil Parille

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Objectivism & "Metaphysics," Part 9

Rand’s axioms: Identity. Ayn Rand explicates this "axiom" as follows:
To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors—the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.

Identity is the most equivocal of Rand's axioms. The equivocation centers around the word is. The phrase A is A and A thing is itself do not necessarily use the term is in the same sense. A is A merely illustrates the identity of a term of thought with itself. It is unproblematical and obvious because it is tautological. If by a "thing" we mean an object in reality, the identity of thing to itself is not entirely unproblematic. In noting that a A is A, you are merely noting an obvious identity of an essence or a sense-datum with itself. In noting that a thing is itself, you are going beyond the simple identity of terms of thought to making assertion about both existence and the qualities of the existing thing. The phrase A is A is not equivalent to the phrase a thing is itself. They do not describe the same type of identity. A term of thought is always and eternally identical to itself. Not so with a thing, which exists in the flux of nature and is subject to changes in its material constitution, even to the point of destruction. When one asserts a thing is itself, one is not asserting pure identity; on the contrary, one is both asserting the existence of the thing and predicating its attributes. These are very different matters from asserting the identity of a term of thought with itself.

Rand's error stems from conflating various meanings of the word is. When former President Clinton noted "It depends on the meaning of the word is," people laughed, because he was obviously trying to equivocate his way to a dishonest end. But philosophically, his statement was not absurd. The philosopher George Santayana identified at least seven meanings of the word is, and assumed there might be many more. Santayana's seven meanings are as follows:

  1. Identity

  2. Equivalence

  3. Definition

  4. Predication

  5. Existence

  6. Actuality

  7. Derivation
Very quickly let's examine these five of these seven meanings. Identity is merely the identity of a term of thought with itself, as mentioned above. Equivalence is the identity of words of similar meanings, such as synonyms and words from other languages (i.e., nothing = rien = nichts = nada = niente). Definition is similar to equivalence, except that a phrase is used instead of another word. Predication is not A is A but A is B (as in snow is white), and involves a contradiction if it is confused with identity (i.e., blood is blood and red is red, but although red can be predicated of blood, red is not identical to blood nor is blood identical to red). Existence indicates that a term of thought describes an object or event or process existing in the flux of nature (i.e., instead of A is A, existence merely contends that A is). Actuality and derivation are a bit too complicated to be discussed here, so I will ignore them.

Now it is my contention that Rand and her disciples confuse identity with predication and existence (in other words, Rand confuses A is A with A is B and A is). Consider the following statement, from Galt's speech:

Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.

While it is true that a leaf cannot be a stone "at the same time," this truth is neither self-evident nor a consequence of A is A. The fact that a term of thought is equal to itself has nothing to do with whether a stone can be a leaf "at the same time." The judgment about stones and leaves involves several important presuppositions that, while true, are not logically irrefutable or "self-evident." To understand that a stone cannot be a leaf at the same time one needs to assume the existence of time and change, both of which rely on the trustworthiness of memory (which, of course, is not entirely unproblematic or "axiomatic"). Once time and change are understood, it is easy to infer that a stone cannot be a leaf at the same time, because the phrase at the same time precludes change of any sort, and freezes every object into an instant of eternity. Yet because the world of nature exists in time, this observation is rather trivial and not terribly useful. In the flux of nature, the material substance in a stone may become the material substance used in the constitution of a leaf, so that a stone may in fact become a leaf if enough time is allowed to effect the process. The process of change tends to be far more relevant to understanding the real world than do assertions about the identity of an object to itself at "any given instant in time."

The identity of a term of thought is simple and unproblematical. Not so the "identity" of an object like a leaf or a stone existing in the flux. When we "identify" a leaf or a stone as a leaf or a stone, we do so by noting the attributes of the leaf and stone, which are predicated of the object, and by presuming the object's existence. In other words, such "identification" involves predication and existence, rather than Rand's simple A is A identification.

Even more objectionable, in this context, is a statement by Leonard Peikoff. "A characteristic is an aspect of an existent," he writes. "It is not a disembodied, Platonic universal. Just as a concept cannot mean existents apart from their identity, so it cannot mean identities apart from that which exists. Existence is Identity." If by characteristic Peikoff means something like color or texture, his verbiage here is complete nonsense. A color or a texture is not an aspect of an existent: it is a mental datum that symbolizes a property of the existent. Mental data are "disembodied" (i.e., non-material), Platonic universals! (Of course, such universals don't have the metaphysical powers Plato ascribed to them, but that's a separate issue.) Since such datum can be used as descriptions of properties of other existents, they are indeed "apart" from that which exists. Yellow can be used by the mind to describe both the sun and a buttercup. It can even be contemplated as an object of the "mind's eye," as when we imagine a yellow patch. This yellow, while perfectly identical to itself, is not identical to the property it symbolizes in reality (which is the manner in which an object reflects light). Since knowledge is fundamentally representational, identity is largely irrelevant. Knowledge is not a mirror. A concept or a name is not identical to the object or property which it points to and represents. The concept of a cat is not identical to the existing cat, nor is the name Barack Obama identical to the 44th President. What we seek for in knowledge is not identity, but appropriate representation. Knowledge does not reduplicate existents, it describes them. This description assumes (1) the existence of the object and (2) the reality of the properties that are predicated of the object. Existence, therefore, is not Identity. When I acknowledge that an individual of my acquaintence is John Smith, I'm not claiming that either the name John Smith or my idea or concept of John Smith is identical to the real John Smith. I'm merely noting a naming convention that allows me to be understood when I state my opinion about John Smith to other people. That opinion, even if true down to the minutest detail, will nevertheless not be identical with the real John Smith in the A is A sense of identity. It will be a veracious description, nothing more.

Therefore, when Rand berates her ideological opponents for evading "the fact that A is A," she means something different from what is encaspulated in her axiom of identity. Her opponents, even when wrong, are not guilty of evading A is A. Who denies that a term of thought is equal to itself? If her opponents have evaded any facts of reality, they are guilty of two possible errors: (1) of denying the existence of something that really exists; or (2) denying that some existent has a specific property. In other words, they are guilty of evading, not identity, but either existence or predication (i.e., they are guilty of evading A is or A is B).

Friday, September 03, 2010

Objectivism & "Metaphysics," Part 8

Rand’s axioms: Consciousness and the discovery of other minds. When Rand declared "one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists," she believed she was stating an axiomatic truth "fundamentally given and directly perceived." But note the use of the pronoun one, which is intentionally vague. Note that she doesn't say "I exist possessing consciousness." By saying "one exists possessing consciousness," she is making the tacit assumption that everyone exists possessing conscious. But how does she know (in the axiomatic sense of the term) that other people are conscious? Even if (assuming, per impossible, that one's own consciousness is perceived directly) surely we don't perceive the consciousness of other people directly. If so, how can the consciousness of other people, of which we have no direct experience, be regarded as axiomatic? Even if I were to wave my previous objections to Rand's "axiomatic knowledge" and her foundationalist pretensions, I still don't see how Rand can justify the belief that other people's consciousness is axiomatic. Even if it were so for each individual, this knowledge would remain exclusively personal. Each individual might regard his own consciousness as "axiomatic," but he could only accept the consciousness of others on purely non-foundationalist grounds. Such knowledge remains conjectural, even on Objectivist premises.

This issue reinforces the view that objective knowledge (i.e., knowledge that is true absolutely, whether anyone recognizes it or not) is conjectural right from the start. Anything that is "fundamentally given and directly perceived" is only given and perceived by an individual. How does that individual know that such knowledge is "fundamentally given and directly perceived" by others? While the reports of other people may constitute evidence for a given claim of knowledge, it is not clear how the validity of an axiom can depend merely on such reports. The testimony of others is like memory: although often reliable, it can hardly be regarded as infallible or as the foundation of "self-evidence." While there exists compelling reasons to believe that at least some knowledge deserves to be regarded as "objective" and reliable, these reasons don't measure up to the standards required of Rand's axioms.

The discovery of other minds, far from being axiomatic, probably results, as does most of our knowledge, from trial and error, experimentation and pragmatic tests. Contrary to Rand's ex cathedra assertions, the mind is not a blank slate. Interpretative predispositions exist right from the start. It seems likely that one of these predispositions is a tendency to regard events in the world as the outcome of some purpose or intention. The default position for the human mind may very well turn out to be some form of animism, so that our first tendency is to look for intention, will, mind, and consciousness in the objects around us. Only later, after much groping and error, do we begin distinguishing between the animate and the inanimate, the conscious and the unconsciousness. These discoveries are explorative and empirical right from the beginning. Knowledge does not arise (as Rand's axioms appear to) by analyzing "given" existents. A particular "given" existent is merely a piece of datum, blank and staring. Nothing of any significance can be deduced or proved or "validated" from such a datum. Knowledge arises when, instead of staring at our datum, we regard such representations as symbols of an outlying reality the constituents of which can be investigated, tested, analyzed and discovered. As Santayana puts it, "only by exploring the flux of nature, by experience or testimony, ... [can] I judge whether my original description, granting my terms and circumstances, was a fair description of what actually lies there." Even though many of Rand's metaphysical assertions are true, her reasons for them (i.e., her explanation of how they are known and justified) are false. No statement about matters of fact, regardless how obvious or irrefragible it may seem to the intellect, is ever "justified" by either "direct" observation (since observation of fact is never direct) or through the analysis, logical or otherwise, of mental data (and all data are mental). Factual knowledge (which means significant, relevant knowledge) is not only conjectural, but empirical as well; indeed, it is conjectural because it is empirical. It is not through logical analysis, but through empirical practice and experimentation, that we learn which conjectures are reliable and can be used as guides to action and which are suspect and will only lead us astray.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Objectivism & "Metaphysics," Part 7

Rand’s axioms: one exists possessing consciousness. While no sensible person would deny that physiologically normal individuals "possess" consciousness, it is questionable whether such a fact deserves to be embalmed as an Objectivist axiom. Remember that these axioms are, according to Rand, "fundamentally given and directly perceived." Now it must be admitted that consciousness, however obvious its existence may seem to the intelligent observer, is neither given nor directly perceived. All that is "given" is the solipsism of the present moment, out of which no knowledge (including axiomatic knowledge) can ever arise. Knowledge, whether axiomatic or otherwise, requires (among other assumptions) trust in memory and belief that what is given (i.e., some datum or "essence") can serve as a description or symbol of real things or events taking place in a substantive world existing in space and time. Consciousness, far from being given or directly perceived, is only recognized through an act of inference. Since (as even Rand admits) consciousness cannot be conscious merely of itself, direct perception of consciousness is an incoherent notion.

David Hume's "attack" on personal identity is relevant to this issue. In his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume wrote:

There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. The strongest sensation, the most violent passion, say they, instead of distracting us from this view, only fix it the more intensely, and make us consider their influence on self either by their pain or pleasure. To attempt a farther proof of this were to weaken its evidence; since no proof can be deriv'd from any fact, of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there any thing, of which we can be certain, if we doubt of this.

Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience, which is pleaded for them, nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explain'd. For from what impression [i.e., perception] cou'd this idea be deriv'd? ... [S]elf or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are suppos'd to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that
impression must continue invariably the same, thro' the whole course of our lives; since self is suppos'd to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is deriv'd; and consequently there is no such idea.

What Hume says of the self (or "personal identity") is easily transferable to consciousness: these are not realities that can be directly perceived or fundamentally given. They are, rather, inferred from the very process of perceiving. The inference by which intelligence identifies consciousness is so obvious and inescapable that it may seem as if it were given through direct perception. But it clearly isn't.

Another problem with the Objectivist axiom of consciousness is the vagueness of the term itself, especially within Objectivist writings. Rand tended to use it in several different senses, and it is not always clear, in each of her usages of the term, which sense she means. It would seem that, in this axiom, Rand is using consciousness in the sense of raw sentience. Consciousness, in this sense, is merely the light of awareness. Generally speaking, however, she seems to identify consciousness with intellect or mind. At other times, she identifies it with the self or the will, describing it as "the faculty of awareness" and as "an active process." She even goes so far as identify consciousness with knowledge: if "no knowledge of any kind is possible to man," she opined, then "man is not conscious."

As we shall note in later posts, Rand's tendency to play fast and loose with the term consciousness enables her to equivocate her way to precisely the sort of metaphysical conclusions she desires to reach. While the notion of consciousness may seem "inescapable" (at least via inference) to a foundationalist mindset, only consciousness as raw, passive sentience would be "inescapable" in this sense. After all, surely even Rand would not declare that intellect or knowledge are "axiomatic"! This being so, it is not clear how inferences against idealism or traditional monotheism can be justified using this axiom. But more of this anon.