Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 2

Pervasiveness of Rationalization in Human Thought. Studies of unconscious brain processes (sometimes called "alien subroutines") reveals a curious phenomenon: the conscious mind often seeks to rationalize what emerges from the unconscious. As David Eagleman explains:

Not only do we run alien subroutines [i.e., unconscious processes]; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our [i.e., our conscious mind's] idea.... We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

To bring the sort of fabrication to light, we need only look at another experiment with split-brain patients.... In 1978, researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of a split-brain patient and a picture of a snowy scene to his right hemisphere. The patient was then asked to point at cards that represented what he had just seen. His right hand pointed to a card with a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a card with a snow shovel. The experimenters asked him why he pointed to a shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language), had information only about a chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: "Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why. If you show the command "Walk" to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he's leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like "I was going to get a drink of water."

The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzinga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an "interpreter," watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications. This idea of retrospective storytelling suggest that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior. As Gazzinga put it, "These findings all suggest that the interpretative mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none -- which leads it continually to make mistakes." [Incognito, 133-134]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 1

Internal Conflicts Ineradicable. Rand's vision of the rational man contained a rather odd feature: he experienced no internal conflicts.

An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions -- provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -- or makes it a point to discover -- the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Rand Never Lost an Argument

Sam Anderson, in a review of Anne Heller's biography of Rand, notes: "Eyewitnesses say that [Rand] never lost an argument." Given the poor quality of many of Rand's actual arguments, as one finds them embalmed in her writings, this is a bit of anamoly. The written evidence, such as it is, demonstrates no very great arguing skill on Rand's part. Quite the contrary, Rand, when she deigns to offer any sort of arguments at all, produces rather poor ones, afflicted with yawning gaps and blistering equivocations. How then could a philosopher who produced such wretched arguments in print be a veritable Hercules of disputation when relying, not on her pen, but on her tongue?

There are several factors which contribue to explaining this anamoly. Rand depended on at least five such factors to provide the varnish of irrefragibility over her otherwise hollow and empirically impoverished arguments. Those factors are:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 20

Art as "fuel." For Rand, one of the primary objectives of art was to serve as a kind of spiritual sustenance or "fuel":

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

I suspect that this statement explains more about Rand's aesthetics than any of Rand's specific theories about art. Rand preferred art that gave her the pleasure of feeling like she was living in her own "ideal" world, populated by her own "ideal" men. While Rand appreciated some works of literature that did not serve as "fuel," she seems to have appreciated no music that fell short of her ideal and hardly any visual art.

Now while anyone may have as narrow (or as wide) aesthetic tastes as they please, in a philosopher of aesthetics, such prejudices are deeply problematic. How can a philosopher provide insights on aesthetics applicable to all (or at least most) individuals when their tastes are so confined within the narrow bounds of their own narcissistic agendas? By Rand's own account (related by Barbara Branden in Who is Ayn Rand? and The Passion of Ayn Rand), Rand was drawn to exciting tales of heroic men. The heroes of most literature simply didn't do anything for her. But the desire to find her ideal man portrayed in literature seems to have prevented Rand from developing appreciation for other virtues in literature. Worse, it inspired her with a scathing contempt for most literature and art which failed to serve as "fuel." Consider what she wrote about the three classics she despised most:

Don Quixote is a malevolent universe attack on all values as such. It belongs in the same class with two other books, which together make up the three books I hate most: Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary.They all have the same theme: Man should not aspire to values. Don Quixote is usually presented as a satire on phony romanticism, but it isn't. It's a satire on all romanticism. As for its literary category, it's a precursor of naturalism (though it isn't written naturalistically). But philosophically -- if you could call it philosophy -- it is plain evil.

And by implication, anyone who admires and enjoys these three novels is also evil. Rand was not content merely to state her own likes and dislikes, however narrow and prejudiced these might have been; but she also had to attack and disparage those whose tastes differed from her own.

In going through Rand's aesthetic judgments, one can't help noticing how often Rand conflates her personal tastes with objective truth. Her "Objectivist" philosophy is really the most subjective of philosophies. It's all about her: her tastes, her emotions, her wants, her needs, all writ large in platonic letters across the heavens. The standard of truth and morality in Objectivism is not "reason" or logic or fact; it is Ayn Rand herself. What Rand said is true is true, despite what all the great thinkers and scientists said before her. What Ayn Rand said is good or evil is good or evil, regardless of whatever natural needs may exist elsewhere in the universe. This explains, perhaps more than anything else, why Objectivsm so quickly degenerated into an Ayn Rand personality cult. Since Objectivism was defined as Rand's philosophy, since she was the ultimate and final arbiter of its dogma, points of disagreement, whenever they fell within the confines of Objectivist doctrine, could only be settled in relation to what Rand might say or think about it. Hence, Beethoven has a malevolent sense of life, not because most of his admirers find him malevolent, but because Rand did. Man is born tabula rasa, not because the facts, as compiled by science, demonstrate such a thing, but because Rand said so. Kant is the most evil man in history, not because he ever did or said anything particularly despicable, but because Rand said so. Rand claimed to found her philosophy on the axiom existence exists; but it is really founded on the (implicit) axiom that equates Rand's thoughts and judgments with objective truth.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ayn Rand Gibberish of the Day.

“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion). - Ayn Rand, "Philosophical Detection", Philosophy: Who Needs It? p14
In the course of making a comment I was reminded of this typical Randian quote. I'd be interested in your views as to the quality of scholarship and argument on display here, given that she is alleged to be the greatest thinker of the past 2000 years. First of all, would Russell really disagree that the statement “Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything” includes itself? Second, Rand seems to be referring to Russell's work on the liar's paradox and the problems that can arise from self-reference; but "one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything" doesn't seem to be such a paradox - in fact it seems consistent. (A problematic version would perhaps be "One can be sure that one cannot be sure of anything.") And of course this work led to important developments in both mathematics and logic, yet Rand describes it as "gibberish". Third, does it follow that "no knowledge of any kind is possible"? Fourth, does it follow from that that "man is not conscious"? Fifth, isn't the remaining passage pretty close to gibberish itself?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 19

Photography. Ayn Rand, to the bewilderment of photographers everywhere, denies that photography is an art:

A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful -- but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art.

(If it is asked, at this point: But why, then, is a film director to be regarded as an artist? -- the answer is: It is the story that provides an abstract meaning which the film concretizes; without a story, a director is merely a pretentious photographer.) [RM, 74]

Beyond demonstrating her lack of specific knowledge about photography, this passage also shows the weakness of her theory of definitions. Much of Rand's argument against photography as art stems from her entirely arbitrary definition of art as "selective recreation." Of course, Rand would deny that her definitions are arbitrary; yet they are. Definitions merely define what people mean by the words they use. They are usually social conventions in that they arise from the attempts of many individuals to make their meanings understood by other people. There is no such thing as a right or wrong definitions: there are merely definitions excepted by most people and definitions accepted only by individuals or eccentric groups (e.g., Objectivist definitions). Generally speaking, it's best to follow standard usage in the use words; otherwise, the chances of being misunderstood will tend to increase, sometimes dramatically.

Rand wants to believe that art requires selective recreation. She tries to defend this point of view by emphasizing the importance of selecting only those concretes that are "abstract essentials." This touches upon another fallacious aspect of Rand's view definitions, words, and concepts: her essentialism. Since Rand never provided a convincing explanation of how to distinguish an "essential" from a non-essential abstraction, her essentialism merely becomes a cover for her arbitrary assertions. The essential is whatever Rand declares to be essential. Once Rand grants herself the exclusive right to determine what is essential, she can arbitrarily dismiss any type or genre of art as non-art on the grounds that it concretizes "non-essential" abstractions.

Friday, July 01, 2011

A Reading List For Open Minded Objectivists

Regular Contributor Neil Parille reaches out to Objectivists whose Rand sycophancy is not at the meter busting level

If you’ve taken ARCHNblog’s “Are You A Rand Cultist?” test and are in the 1-6 range, there might be a chance that with some good reading material that you can get a better perspective on Rand. If you are in the 7-12 range some intensive deprogramming is necessary. I would never recommend kidnapping Randroids and locking them in rooms while deprogrammers try some reverse mind control, but as a public service I’ll provide links to books and on-line material that might help unclog the minds of otherwise rational Objectivists.*

For basic critiques of Objectivism, check out this blog's eponymous Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Nyquist subjects Objectivism’s central claims to empirical enquiry. Many of Rand’s assertions about society and human nature don’t measure up. For a different take on Objectivism, check out Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, a work that critiques Rand’s epistemology from a more traditional philosophic perspective.

For Rand’s theory of concept formation, see Bryan Register’s discussion of various problems in his 2000 Journal of Rand Studies essay. For a critique of essentialism, check out Karl Popper’s “Two Kinds of Definitions.” For a defense of essentialism, read David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.