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]

Gazzinga and LeDoux's findings do not represent some sort of anomaly, applicable to only split-brain patients. Researchers continually run across subjects who are obviously inventing stories about something they know little about. Whether man is in fact a rational animal, as Rand and her disciples always insisted, is doubtful; but he is very much a rationalizing animal. However, this leads to a problem: if rationalization is pervasive in human thought, doesn't this suggest that all human thought, including the thought that rationalization is pervasive, is itself a rationalization? If rationalization is pervasive, how can one know the truth?

Human beings have developed a number of counter-measures to circumvent the strong tendency to rationalization. The most powerful of these counter-measures is openness to criticism. While the individual may not be very good at catching himself in that act of rationalization, he's often pretty shrewd when it comes to detecting it in others. Hence the development of institutions in science and scholarship that use peer review to arrive at truth. Our justice system has also developed institutions to wrestle with the problems of innate bias and rationalization. The old saw that no man should be a judge in his own cause reflects centuries of human experience concerning the question of whether people can be trusted to be objective about issues involving their own interest. Their objectivity is not only compromised by vested interests, but by the tendency to unwittingly rationalize.

While Rand may have been able to detect rationalization in others (which is not very hard), she appears to have been incapable of detecting it in herself. Indeed, the biographical evidence strongly suggests that Rand was intensely committed to a vision of herself that excluded the possibility of rationalization, bias, or any other form of "irrationality." Rand once boasted that she had never experienced an emotion that clashed with her reason for more than a day [Sciabarra, ARRR, 185-186] -- a boast which raises serious questions about Rand's own objectivity and the validity of her introspections. Since the human brain is not a unified system, the only way to explain Rand's claim is that she rationalized her emotions so that they fit the artificial, self-imposed narrative that she wished to construct around her life. Rand appears to have been strongly invested in the notion that she, unlike many other people, knew how to think rationally, and this meant she was right and everyone who disagreed her was wrong (and perhaps evil as well). This frame of mind closed Rand off to effective criticism and shut up her mind in a series of self-reinforcing loops. Those most prone to rationalization are precisely those most invested in the belief that they are free of such intellectual vices. The most effective counter-measures to rationalization are humility about one's own mind and openness to criticism from others. Rand was strongly biased against either of these counter-measures, and hence enjoyed little chance of escaping from the mind's strong tendency toward telling stories rather than embracing truth.


Lee Kelly said...

Good post. It complements my latest post here: http://www.criticalrationalism.net/2011/07/27/objective-and-objectivist-dogmas/

Tod said...

I have a little thing I'm trying to contact Daniel or Greg about, but since there is no contact form on this site, I have to post this here. (Sorry!)

I noticed your quote by "R Bramwell" on the front page and Googled his name. I found some Amazon reviews he wrote, including one about a book called "Frindle." This is a children's story about a boy who invents a the word "frindle" to replace the word "pen." Eventually everybody starts using it.

So R Branwell wrote a hilarious review applying Objectivist epistemology to the Frindle story. Want to guess at the results? After a lot of extremely poor reasoning, he asserts that teaching children that they can invent new words for existing concepts will lead to the destruction of their minds.

I wrote a lengthy reply debunking his theories. You can read it here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2JMILNKPM8FYA/ref=cm_cr_rev_detmd_pl?ie=UTF8&cdForum=Fx3B6QU51L7CBEY&cdMsgNo=14&cdPage=2&asin=0689818769&store=books&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=Tx2YD8LYSBTZ8WK&cdMsgID=MxBDANMG9VBYKR#MxBDANMG9VBYKR

This is all really interesting because his review is so illogical, even though he defends logic, and it's so hysterical and irrational, even though he calls himself a defender of reason. And I know just how, from his perspective, he is absolutely certain that there isn't a single illogical idea in either his review or the epistemology on which it is based.

I thought that someone here might be either educated or entertained by reading this.

Tod said...

If the link in my previous post doesn't work, you can use this instead: http://tod.fm/x/35

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Tod,

Good link. R Bramwell was one of my favourite demented ARCHNblog commenters, along with the legendary John Donohue, of Pasadena CA.

But more than just a slightly nutty link, this once again illustrates a tendency, which I see in Rand herself, to tacitly assume words have some kind of "necessary connection" to reality. Weird.

Daniel Barnes said...

See, for example, Bramwell's claim in comments to that review:
"Dictionaries operate, variously, on two levels. One is prescriptive, setting the meanings of words within certain limits based on their original *conceptual* usage. The other is descriptive, accepting whatever a word like 'cool' or 'wicked' (_sensu_ fantastic) happens to *appear* to mean."

I mean, what the hell is the dude talking about???? What words "appear" to mean, as opposed to their "original conceptual" meaning??

I really think this is an important unspoken - and deeply mistaken - assumption behind a lot of Rand's thinking.

Tod said...

@Daniel Yep. There are so many problems with that review and its implications, someone should write an essay about it. He even delves into the intrinsicism that Objectivists are against, by claiming that the invention of the word "pinna" was not arbitrary. If it wasn't arbitrary, if someone at some time didn't just make it up, then where did the word come from? From God?

I think a lot of creationists would embrace Bramwell's logic. When I was a little kid, I saw a religious cartoon where Adam looked at an animal and, as the narrator explained, the "right" word just popped into his head. "Ostrich." "Elephant." And so on. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is what Bramwell implies.

I can see so many problems with this man's ideas, but unfortunately I'm not the one to answer them. This is because I came to the realization that reading Ayn Rand, all of it, and reading Peikoff, and agreeing with every word, and supporting the movement, does not make you a philosopher.

Despite the cute little paperbacks on my shelf, I am NOT well-read in philosophy, and I DO NOT have experience practicing or doing or arguing philosophy. I am glad that people who do have experience in philosophy come here to deconstruct these ideas for me.

Ken said...

@Daniel: Bramwell omits at least one other function of a dictionary, which is etymology. I cannot help but wonder if this was deliberate, since it makes a hash of the idea of an "original conceptual meaning". Word meanings shift all the time, and it's a rare word that has exactly the same meaning it did five hundred years ago. What, then, is the correct meaning of such a word? I strongly suspect that Bramwell's hidden assumption is "the way that I use it".

Daniel Barnes said...


The whole thing is flakey. But the fact that Rand's acolytes felt an Ayn Rand Lexicon was so important even though she was writing in contemporary English (i.e. it's not as if she was writing in Greek 2000 years ago!) gives you an idea of where they're coming from.

Jay Cross said...

Wow, I haven't been here in a while...sad in a way to hear that the one, the only John Donohue, of Pasadena CA. is no longer around. But I am loving the work you guys have done lately!

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Jay, Greg's been doing yeoman duty of late...;-)

Drew said...

Does not the evidence of other languages counter essentialism (or as someone else has it intrincisism) in language robsutly?

I like frindles, my favourite are Steadler frindles.

JoyousFlame said...

I wanted to thank you for your book and series of blog posts which I am working through today. I became an Objectivist in high school and held rigidly to that belief system throughout college. Sparked by several instances of "Objectivists behaving badly," I began reading other material (including yours) that made me call into question many of the beliefs I'd held to be certain. Primarily, my concerns with Objectivism stemmed from what you noted in your opening section: that Rand did not set out to discover truths about human nature; rather, she set out to create an ideal man for her fiction writing, and had to build a philosophy to defend the characteristics of that man. While I still largely thought the Objectivist ethics was correct, the writings of Roy Childs convinced me that Rand's political/economic arguments were not entirely sound, either.
After a number of years of not affiliating myself with O'ism, I realized I psychologically and emotionally longed for the certainty and sense of purpose that official O'ist doctrine provides, and again began participating in the local group, listening to podcasts each week, etc. However, a discussion last night on "instinct" (which involved reading passages from The Lexicon and their original source) reminded me that Rand is WRONG about instinct and thus about the nature of man. Given the faulty premise that man does not have an innate desire for self-preservation, it is jarring to think of the implications this has in justifying other O'ist positions--
-- the moral justification of late-term abortion because a fetus is not a human (though, in reality, a fetus DOES have a desire for self-preservation as can be seen in late-term abortion videos)
-- the moral condemnation of individuals with mental illness (because, despite that some characteristics and mental predispositions are genetic, the O'ist "no loaded dice" view of free will insists that all psychological problems are due to faulty philosophical premises and that we are entirely "self-made")
-- the idea that a man's character can be judged by evaluating the woman to whom he is attracted, and that attraction stems from the rational evaluation of another's character (ignoring that survival of a species requires an innate drive for sex)...
So Rand's incorrect assertions on the nature of man as an animal have grave implications for other aspects of Objectivism.
I am going to spend the afternoon reading through your posts on this topic, and wanted to thank you for all the research you have done and your willingness to share it with The Internet.