Thursday, December 09, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 3

Human beings have no innate tendencies. Instead of providing evidence for this assertion, Rand and her followers merely provides a couple of arguments. Let's briefly examine the two arguments.

Argument 1:

Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a “tendency” to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.

For nearly two-thousand years, men of thought, under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, attempted to determine matters of fact with rationalistic arguments like the one Rand provides above. It's the method Plato used to assert that the orbits of planets were circular; it was the method Hegel used to assert that the solar system can feature only seven planets; it was the method behind the practice of bleeding people when they were sick; it is the method that Augustine used to deny the existence of antipodes: it is a method that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. Matters of fact simply cannot be determined in this way. No credible scientist would ever be taken seriously if he tried to establish some controversial matter of fact using the method Rand resorts to above.

Argument 2: I'm not aware that Rand ever made this argument, but it has been made by some of her followers, and it is based on Randian constructs:

  • Premise 1: A tendency to behave in a certain way is ultimately an automated value judgment
  • Premise 2: Value judgments are ideas
  • Premise 3: Innate ideas are impossible
  • Premise 4: An innate tendency would be an innate idea
  • Conclusion: Innate tendencies are impossible

The problem with this argument (besides its excessive rationalism) is that the first three premises involve controversial assertions about matters of fact which can only be settled by a detailed (meaning: scientific) examination of the relevant facts. If Rand and her followers want to be taken seriously on these points, they must (1) provide detailed evidence that there assertions are true; and (2) they must explain why the evidence provided on the opposite side of the issue by geneticists and evolutionary biologists is either irrelevant or false. Until Objectivists get around to doing this, no rational person need take their assertions on these matters seriously.


Unknown said...

My experience with the few faithful Objectivists amounts to their making unbelievably broad-based assertions about the nature of existence followed by pointing at me and daring me to disprove it.

Sorry, charlie. That's your job.

Michael Prescott said...

The other thing that strikes me about the passage you quoted is Rand's use of the phrase "cowardly evasion" to describe a position she disagrees with. I realize the quote is taken from Galt's speech and, as such, has certain dramatic qualities, but Rand used this rhetorical approach even in her nonfiction essays. What she sees as "cowardly," someone else might call "nuanced." Her black-and-white, either-or mindset rendered her incapable of appreciating subtleties in her opponents' positions, and her moralistic temperament allowed her to rationalize this defect as a virtue.

Both aspects of her personality are so pronounced and so consistent, one might be tempted to call them innate tendencies.

Xtra Laj said...

I participated in an MBTI session recently and I think that Rand was an INTJ on the scale with a strong emphasis on the N and some on the T - she was a much better big picture, theoretical thinker and had very little patience for details and facts. I think that NT is probably a popular personality type for Objectivists as well.

gregnyquist said...

"Rand was an INTJ on the scale with a strong emphasis on the N and some on the T"

Interesting. I would've guessed that she was an ISTJ, with some N characteristics. Of course, the MBTI is hardly a perfect categorization of personality. Sometimes it's difficult to know which category a person falls into.

Sam Troy said...


Recently Rands followers also insist to me that the human brain is hard wired to require 'non-contradictory values' which I suppose is a kind of tendency.

My objectivist brother uses it as a 'proof' that one cannot steal (undermine property rights) and be happy (enjoy property rights).

This seems a slightly different take on empirically irresponsible. I have pointed out that this is goes from generalisation to statement of fact without any proof and that humans are adept at rationalising.

If anyone would like to volunteer any more responses for my brother, a self-styled 'expert' in philosophy I would be really grateful.

p.s my brother is Randroid dannidandannikins on utube and he is nuts.

gregnyquist said...

"Recently Rands followers also insist to me that the human brain is hard wired to require 'non-contradictory values' which I suppose is a kind of tendency. "

Neither Rand nor her followers are consistent on their "no innate tendency" mantra. Rand claimed, for example, that "In any historical period when men were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy that won." Well, that certainly suggests an innate tendency! And let's face it, desires are tendencies as well, and who would dare suggest that desires are chosen?

(Actually Rand suggested just that in her journals. But Rand's speculations in this regard have not become part of official Objectivism.)

What Objectivists sometimes like to argue is that it is the form or mechanism of the emotion or desire that is innate, but not the "content." A man's sex desire is admitted to be innate, but how he satisfies it is his choice. This is one of those "true but irrelevant" observations which Objectivists enjoy making. If a man's sex drive is innate, then it's an "innate tendency" — to object to such word usage it to descend to tiresome semantics. After all, a man doesn't choose to have sexual desire. Those of us who claim that innate tendencies exist are not arguing that how the tendency is satisfied is innate, only that the desire or tendency itself is innate. Hence, we might say that many men experience an innate tendency for higher status in society, yet how they satisfy this tendency is of their "free" choice. But Rand would never have admitted any such innate tendency, even if we agreed to called it an "innate desire" rather than an "innate tendency." Objectivists only wish to admit those innate tendencies or desires that Rand herself admitted. They wish to evade any that might stand in the way of achieving their laissez-faire utopia.

Dragonfly said...

@Sam Troy: Let us for brevity number the two statements:

[1] the brain is hard wired to require non-contradictory values

[2] one cannot steal and be happy

What is the evidence that [1] is true? One cannot base it on statements like [2], as

1) what is the evidence that [2] is true?

2) moreover, it would be an example of begging the question (circular reasoning, prove [1] from [2] and then prove [2] from [1]).

In other words, these are two arbitrary assertions, a fantasy without any evidence. Perhaps arrived at by divine revelation or mystical insight?

Behemoth said...

Wow, Sam, your brother is quite a piece of work... here's his take on ARCHN:

Michael Prescott said...

Sociopaths can steal or even commit murder, and still be happy. They have no conscience. That's what makes them sociopaths.

Michael Prescott said...

I took a look at the YouTube rant linked by Behemoth. By his own admission, dannidandannikins barely glanced at the site; he seems to think it is run by one person, not two, and he says "the guy is a professor," which as far as I know is not true of either Dan or Greg. He also asserts that "the guy" says it's impossible for an intelligent person to be an Objectivist; I don't think either Dan or Greg has ever said this.

What struck me above all was his throwaway line, "I hate this guy." To me, this is one of the saddest and most destructive aspects of Objectivism: in the name of morality, it encourages its followers to hate. Many of the people drawn to Objectivism have anger issues to begin with; validating their feelings in this respect is the last thing they need.

Xtra Laj said...

Part of the problem is that Objectivists don't want to really understand what their opponents are saying and for them, it makes sense to dismiss things that are counterintuitive. We have the advantage of understanding them because we can speak their language - they can't even understand us well enough to speak ours.

Objectivists think uncritically of logic (which some people may or may not distinguish from "Logic") as "all the methods which we use to arrive at conclusions" and don't realize that logic is actually a narrow subset of the methods we use to arrive at conclusions. So Sam's brother is probably thinking that Greg rejects reasoning (based on Objectivism's definition of the terms) when the substance is really that Greg has problems with speculative reasoning that does not repeatedly submit itself to the bar of experimentation yet proclaims its conclusions to be absolute truth.

Xtra Laj said...


I think Michael's response is the best one with a combination of Hume.

If dannidandannikins is speaking literally, then your brother must understand the concept of counterexamples and appreciate the existence of sociopaths and you can point out their existence and all the experimental evidence in neuroscience.

If he is speaking morally, you can point out that his moral premise is likely something he agrees with, but is not likely to be agreed upon by all people, including sociopaths. The "is-ought" dilemma is important here, but most Objectivists do not understand it so it might not help you.

Another point is that Objectivists use the word "contradiction" way too liberally when they really mean "conflicting" and whether values are really conflicting on the whole or just with respect to a particular goal can be a difficult empirical question. Contradictions are "A" and "Not-A" and imply an excluded middle, and are not just conflicts. Holding to values that seem to be in conflict is natural for a variety of reasons (I know Greg has written something on this) and in fact, some may argue like myself that is is important for reasoning and personal growth so the empirical evidence for your brother's statement is pretty lame.

For example, I might want to be the top dog at work, but I might need the help of others who I am competing with to be the top dog, so the real question is how best to manage my competitive relationships and my aspirations so that there is the appropriate balance, and not just stating they are "contradictions".

I have Objectivist brothers too so I empathize with your predicament.

stuart said...

Sam, I empathise.

There's an earnest young man on an O-site who's been trying to convert his dad for years, with the advice and support of his cyberpals. The father seems like a great guy with the patience of a saint.

At least your brother is presentable and soetimes articulate. Maybe he'll grow out of it.

Is there an Ob-anon for the relatives of Randroids?--maybe this site is it?