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?


Ken said...

I'll get back to you on this. First I want to review What is the Name of This Book? and a few other Raymond Smullyan popularizations. I think a quick refresher of what you can deduce when an insane knave says "I do not believe that this statement is true" will be helpful in parsing that verbal word-salad.

Anonymous said...

These are good questions. Does knowledge require certainty in order to be knowledge? Part of Rand's confusion (and some of the stuff that's going awry in TLL) might be resolved if we think of knowledge and science as *process* rather than something finished and packaged like an object.

I don't particularly get the equation of "knowledge," "certainty" and "consciousness," either.

- Chris

gregnyquist said...

I don't particularly get the equation of "knowledge," "certainty" and "consciousness," either.

The equation of knowledge with certainty goes back at least to Plato, and is dominant within the classical tradition of philosophy. Rand may have gotten it from Aristotle, or Isabel Paterson, or from someplace else; from whomever she got it, given how uptight she was about admitting she was wrong, it would have strongly appealed to her.

The equation of certainty with consciousness exhibits exceedingly poor judgment, and carries with it a strong presumption of rationalization. When people are engaged in rationalization (which they do unconsciously, without realizing it), they tend to drop their intellectual guard, as it were, and become very poor self censors. Rand was obviously not in a calm, perfectly rational state when she made this equation. If someone she despised (like Kant, for example) had made such an equation, I suspect she would've been more inclined to regard it with suspicion.

Rey said...

An Objectivist I used to know would acknowledge that Rand liked to jump to "counterintuitive" conclusions, but he believed that it's the job of still-living Objectivists to engage in post hoc rationalizations of predetermined conclusion, not that he put it quite like that.

Anyway, I see two such gaps in the three sentences.

(1) If No Certainty then...
(2) ???
(3) No Knowledge, which means...
(4) ???
(5) No Consciousness.

Anyone care to fill them in?

J. Goard said...


Also remember that consciousness is an "axiom", so certainty is assumed at the outset. :-/

Avital Pilpel said...

Mr. Nyquist -- are you aware of a book by Andrew Oldenquist, "The Non-Suicidal Society"? He has in it an excellent (and I think objective) analysis of the problems (and virtues) of Rand's ethics, in the chapter "The Selling of Selfishness".

Anonymous said...

First: if the statement "Don't be so sure- nobody can be certain of anything" includes itself, that means that it negates its validity as a dictum, which Ayn Rand sought to prove given the literal heritage she left us. She's an objectivist who dictates that man can be sure of things, based on their objective reality. So to answer your question, Yes, I think Russell would "really" disagree.
Second: Not that I am familiar with Russell's work on the Liar's Paradox, but to say that "One cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything" is not a paradoxical calls into question your own scholarly skills. The definition of a paradox is something which contradicts itself, that is to say something which negates its own validity, its own reality, its own trueness. How can "One can't be sure of anything" be a true statement if it holds the contradiction of "one cannot be sure that even this statement is true"? Your more problematic suggestion is just as paradoxical as the original statement. Unless of course your suggestion falls outside the realm of "anything", think on that one.

Third: How many kinds of knowledge are out there?! There are branches of knowledge, not kinds of it! Valid knowledge, epistemologically speaking, is an undisputed fact. Therefore real knowledge is unattainable if you can't be sure of anything. I'm sure that oranges are orange, I'm sure you're full of shit, etcetera.
Fourth: Yes, it follows that man is not fully conscious, because he choose to be in a state of semi-consciousness by choosing not to follow reason to its fullest extent, and by choosing not to pursue knowledge until he's sure.
Fifth: It's only gibberish if you are. Are you Gibberish?

Sam T said...

Russell was quite hot on why some people believe that their knowledge is certain, and points out reasons for thinking otherwise, as do subsequent skeptics.

Objectivists sidestep the conversation/objections to what might establish certainty by dismissing skepticism as self-refuting.

Apart from being rather insulting this is harmless enough, but when Rand ignores the underlying issue, her comments on that issue cannot ever be relevant. She excludes herself from the conversation that the rest of us want to have, Russell included.

Gibberish might be a bit harsh, she seemed to go wrong when she decided the "catchphase" was the whole issue.

Regarding knowledge being uncertain, does it help to think of it as incomplete?