Monday, December 17, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 25

Definitions 10: Doctrine of Ostensive Definition. In my last post, I noted that definitions lead to an infinite regress. Once a word has been defined, then you need to define the words used in the definition. But the words of those definitions need to be defined as well; and this process must go on forever. How does Objectivism propose to evade this infinite regress? Through their theory of ostensive definition. Rand introduces it as follows:

With certain significant exceptions, every concept can be defined and communicated in terms of other concepts. The exceptions are concepts referring to sensations, and metaphysical axioms.

Sensations are the primary material of consciousness and, therefore, cannot be communicated by means of the material which is derived from them. The existential causes of sensations can be described and defined in conceptual terms (e.g., the wavelengths of light and the structure of the human eye, which produce the sensations of color), but one cannot communicate what color is like, to a person who is born blind. To define the meaning of the concept “blue,” for instance, one must point to some blue objects to signify, in effect: “I mean this.” Such an identification of a concept is known as an “ostensive definition.”

Ostensive definitions are usually regarded as applicable only to conceptualized sensations. But they are applicable to axioms as well. Since axiomatic concepts are identifications of irreducible primaries, the only way to define one is by means of an ostensive definition—e.g., to define “existence,” one would have to sweep one’s arm around and say: “I mean this.”

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 24

Definitions 9: Doctrine of Verbalism. Rand is very clear on the relation between knowledge and definitions:

The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions. [IOTE, 49]

Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration. [RM, 77]

There is a serious problem with the Objectivist view of definitions that neither Rand nor her followers have ever adequately answered. The truth and falsehood of man's knowledge cannot possibly rest on definitions, because definitions are ultimately circular. One word is merely defined by other words; so that to expect to find truth and rationality in definitions is to expect what can never be found. As Karl Popper explained in The Open Society and Its Enemies:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 23

Definitions 8: Doctrine of the Hierarchy of Knowledge. Rand had the habit of drawing dubious premises from trivial premises. With her doctrine of the hierarchy of knowledge, we find her at her old tricks:

[There is a] long conceptual chain that starts from simple, ostensive definitions and rises to higher and still higher concepts, forming a hierarchical structure of knowledge so complex that no electronic computer could approach it. It is by means of such chains that man has to acquire and retain his knowledge of reality. [RM, 18]
To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality. [IOTE, 50]

That some concepts are "wider" than others — that animal, for example, is wider than mammal, and mammal wider than deer — is something so trivial that hardly anyone has bothered making a fuss about it before Rand. But the way some Objectivists talk about the hierarchy of knowledge, you would think that only Rand noticed it, while everyone else is in denial that concepts have any such structure. "Knowledge is hierarchal," Rand's disciples keep insisting; to which the obvious retort is, "So what!" The problem with Rand's hierarchy of knowledge is not that it is wrong but that Objectivists exaggerate its importance.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 22

Definitions 7: Doctrine of the Homogenuity of Reality. The doctrine of essentialism, as Karl Popper has noted, regards knowledge as sort of syllogistic encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences. Rand's view of knowledge is not so very different. She believed that human beings "organize concepts into propositions" and that the truth of these propositions rests on the "truth and falsehood of the definitions of the concepts" used in the propositions, which in turn rests on the truth or falsehoods of the "designations of essential characteristics." Knowledge, Rand insisted, was an integrated whole, tied together by definitions:

Since the definition of a concept is formulated in terms of other concepts, it enables man, not only to identify and retain a concept, but also to establish the relationships, the hierarchy, the integration of all his concepts and thus the integration of his knowledge. Definitions preserve, not the chronological order in which a given man may have learned concepts, but the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence. [IOTE, 40]

Friday, November 02, 2012

Objectivists And Personal Responsibility

In which John Aglialoro, the producer of the double-bomb "Atlas Shrugged" series and David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society and official script consultant to the project, place the blame for these spectacular failures on everyone but themselves.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 21

Definitions 6: Doctrine of Essentialism. Karl Popper provides the following gloss on essentialism:

Like Plato, Aristotle believed that we obtain all knowledge ultimately by an intuitive grasp of the essences of things. 'We can know a thing only by knowing its essence', Aristotle writes, and 'to know a thing is to know its essence'. A 'basic premiss' is, according to him, nothing but a statement describing the essence of a thing. But such a statement is just what he calls a definition. Thus all 'basic premisses of proofs' are definitions.
...Aristotle considers the term to be defined as a name of the essence of a thing, and the defining formula as the description of that essence. And he insists that the defining formula must give an exhaustive description of the essence or the essential properties of the thing in question; thus a statement like 'A puppy has four legs', although true, is not a satisfactory definition, since it does not exhaust what may be called the essence of puppiness, but holds true of a horse also; and similarly the statement 'A puppy is brown', although it may be true of some, is not true of all puppies; and it describes what is not an essential but merely an accidental property of the defined term.

But the most difficult question is how we can get hold of definitions or basic premisses, and make sure that they are correct - that we have not erred, not grasped the wrong essence. Although Aristotle is not very clear on this point, there can be little doubt that, in the main, he again follows Plato.... Aristotle's view is less radical and less inspired than Plato's, but in the end it amounts to the same. For although he teaches that we arrive at the definition only after we have made many observations, he admits that sense experience does not in itself grasp the universal essence, and that it cannot, therefore, fully determine a definition. Eventually he simply postulates that we possess an intellectual intuition, a mental or intellectual faculty which enables us unerringly to grasp the essences of things, and to know them. And he further assumes that if we know an essence intuitively, we must be capable of describing it and therefore of defining it. (His arguments in the Posterior Analytics in favour of this theory are surprisingly weak. They consist merely in pointing out that our knowledge of the basic premisses cannot be demonstrative, since this would lead to an infinite regress, and that the basic premisses must be at least as true and as certain as the conclusions based upon them. 'It follows from this', he writes, 'that there cannot be demonstrative knowledge of the primary premisses; and since nothing but intellectual intuition can be more true than demonstrative knowledge, it follows that it must be intellectual intuition that grasps the basic premisses.' In the De Anima, and in the theological part of the Metaphysics, we find more of an argument; for here we have a theory of intellectual intuition - that it comes into contact with its object, the essence, and that it even becomes one with its object. 'Actual knowledge is identical with its object.')

Summing up this brief analysis, we can give, I believe, a fair description of the Aristotelian ideal of perfect and complete knowledge if we say that he saw the ultimate aim of all inquiry in the compilation of an encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences, that is to say, their names together with their defining formulae; and that he considered the progress of knowledge as consisting in the gradual accumulation of such an encyclopaedia, in expanding it as well as in filling up the gaps in it and, of course, in the syllogistic derivation from it of 'the whole body of facts' which constitute demonstrative knowledge.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looking Forward to Part 3

Atlas Shrugged Part 2 earned a wretched $91,000 in its third weekend, compared to the $468,000 even its turkey predecessor was bringing in at the same point in its run.

Incidentally, Box Office Mojo estimates that Sandy may have affected sales by "at worst 10%".

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Atlas 2: An Even Bigger Bomb?

No surprises there.

Despite opening far wider than its predecessor, it's currently falling even faster and harder. Box Office Mojo has the brutal numbers.

Producer Harmon Kaslow claims that his movie is "not for everyone". Clearly he is a master of understatement.

And don't forget the unintentionally ironic merchandising.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 20

Definitions 5: Doctrine of Essence. Rand introduces essences in the chapter on definitions.

It is Aristotle who first formulated the principles of correct definition. It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power, and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences and forms concepts accordingly. 
Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological. 
Objectivism holds that the essence of a concept is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of a man’s knowledge. Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man’s knowledge. The metaphysical referent of man’s concepts is not a special, separate metaphysical essence, but the total of the facts of reality he has observed, and this total determines which characteristics of a given group of existents he designates as essential. An essential characteristic is factual, in the sense that it does exist, does determine other characteristics and does distinguish a group of existents from all others; it is epistemological in the sense that the classification of “essential characteristic” is a device of man’s method of cognition—a means of classifying, condensing and integrating an ever-growing body of knowledge.

It is important to note the various connections that Rand maintains between essence, concepts, and definitions. She begins by introducing the Aristotle's view of essence. For Aristotle, essences are "metaphysical." They exist "in" concretes as a special element or "formative power." Rand, however, regards these essences as "epistemological." I've attempted to unpack the meaning of this phrase in another post; I will focus in this post on another side of the issue.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Part II Commences

So far seems to be tracking only slightly ahead of the former, despite being in 3x the number of cinemas this time around. Reviews say it still sucks.
Opening weekend stats.
Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 19

Definitions 4: Doctrine of Definitions as Platonic Ideas. While Rand did not explicitly believe that definitions were analogous to platonic Ideas, her contention that definitions can be true or false implies that definitions are thoroughly platonic and exist as a kind of disembodied reality.

Definitions can either be regarded as defining the "true" meaning of words (as Rand regards them) or as defining what people mean by the words they use (which is how dictionaries regard them). Now for Rand's view of definitions to be true, words must have meanings independent of the meanings people intend to convey when using them. An individual may be trying to convey meaning X by using word A. But if the "true" definition of X is B rather than A, then the individual actually means B rather than A, irrespective of his intentions. This doctrine is, of course, absurd, yet it is one that Rand appears to have embraced. Consider the most notorious example, from the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness:
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 18

Definitions 3: Doctrine of Anti-Concept and Invalid Concept. In Rand's infamous chapter on definitions in Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology, we find the following bewildering assertion:
There are such things as invalid concepts, i. e. words that represent attempts to integrate errors, contradictions, or false propositions, such as concepts originating in mysticism -- or word without specific definitions, without referents, which can mean anything to anyone, such as modern "anti-concepts." Invalid concepts appear occasionally in men's languages, but are usually - though not necessarily - short-lived, since they lead to cognitive dead-ends. An invalid concept invalidates every proposition or process of thought in which it is used as a cognitive assertion. [IOTE, 49]

The most astonishing claim in this paragraph is the final sentence. Invalid concepts spread a kind of curse of invalidity upon everything which uses them as a "cognitive assertion." I'll assume that by "cognitive assertion," Rand means, an assertion about reality. If interpreted in this manner, is the statement true? Hardly. I've already, in previous posts, refuted it. Merely because a concept refers to extra-empirical entitites, or to contradictory beliefs, or to the unreal does not invalidate the concept! Nor does using those so-called "invalid" concepts, even in assertions about reality, invalidate those assertions. The concept bandersnatch can be used in "valid" (i.e., "true," "real") assertions about reality, namely: The bandersnatch is a swift moving creature with a long neck invented by Lewis Carroll. Or: The banderstatch does not exist.

Without realizing it, Rand's decision to regard some concepts as "invalid" not only places concepts referring to mythological creatures beyond the cognitive pale, it also casts a shadow of invalidity over concepts that refer to erroneous ideas. After all, should Marxism be regarded as an invalid concept? After all, Marxism integrates errors, contradictions, and false propositions. But if Marxism is an invalid concept, how are we supposed to refer to that body of thought that Karl Marx inflicted upon the world?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 17

Definitions 2: Doctrine of Concepts as the Principle Unit of Knowledge. This doctrine is expounded in Rand's Epistemological workshops:

Prof F: My question is about the relationships between concepts and propositions. Concepts are logically prior, aren't they?
AR: Yes.
Prof F: If every concept is based upon a definition, isn't that definition itself a proposition?
AR: Oh yes.
Prof F: Well then, the concept is in this case based on a proposition.
AR: No, but the first concepts are not. First level concepts, concepts of perceptual concretes, are held without definitions.... They are held first without definitions, mainly in visual form, or through other sensory images. By the time you accumulate enough of them, you can progress to propositions, to making use of concepts, organizing them into sentences which communicate something. And the concepts you form from then on, which are abstractions from abstractions, those you couldn't hold visually; they require formal definitions. By the time you get to them, you are already capable of forming abstractions.
And observe that that's true even by simple empirical verification: if you see how a child learns to speak, he doesn't start by uttering sentences. He first utters single words, and then after a while, when he has enough of them, he begins to try to communicate in sentences....
Prof B: It is still true that every concept is prior to any proposition that contains the concept. You have to have the concept before you can use it in a proposition....
Prof F: Yes.
AR: There is something I would like to add. There is a passage in the book where I said every concept stands for a number of implicit propositions. And even so, chronologically we have to acquire concepts first, and then we begin to learn propositions. Logically implicit in a concept is a proposition, only a child couldn't possibly think of it. He doesn't have the means yet to say, "By the word 'table' I mean such and such a category of existents [with all their characteristics]." [IOTE, 177-178]

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 16

Definitions 1: The Doctrine of Immaculate Definitions. For Rand, the basic unit of human knowledge is the concept, which she defined as follows:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. 

Note the phrase "united by a specific definition." According to Rand, definitions are a necessary component to conceptual knowledge:

Words transform concepts into (mental) entities; definitions provide them with identity. (Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.) [IOTE, 11]

Here Rand commits an error that it as the core of her view of definitions. She confuses definitions with meanings. While definitions state the meaning of words, they are not identical with that meaning. They cannot be identical because, as even Rand admits, definitions are condensations of knowledge. The meaning of most words is far too complex to be summed up in a brief definition. That is one reason why it is possible to know the meaning of a word without being able to provide its definition. Rand, however, insists that people must be able to define their abstract concepts if their knowledge is to be "valid." She (implicitly) denies that people can know even when they can't define their terms. This view, however, does not accord with experience. A definition merely states the meaning of one word in terms of other words. It's a way of saying the same thing with different words. The ability to define one's terms measures, not knowledge, but verbal fluency. An articulate person can describe the same thing in a variety of different ways, using different terms. That's all a definition is: saying the same thing using different words. The purpose of definitions is to establish common usage in the words people use, so they know what they mean when they write or speak. Definitions connect meanings (i.e., concepts) to words. Definitions have nothing to do with concept formation. Concepts already express meanings: it's a built-in feature. A concept without a meaning would not be a concept. Definitions merely connect concepts to conventions of word usage. For communication purposes, it is useful that we ascribe similar meanings to identical words. Otherwise, we will never understand one another.

When declaring that words "without definitions" are "inarticulate sounds," Rand misses the point. What she should have said is that words without meanings are inarticulate sounds. Words can only be defined in terms of other words. In the end, there must be a meaning separate from the word itself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 15

Definitions: Introduction. The heart and soul of Rand's Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology is the chapter on definitions. I have already suggested that Rand's view of essence is far more important to her epistemology than her much heralded (by Objectivists) hypothesis of measurement-ommission. The problem of universals can easily be recast as the problem of essences. For Objectivism, essences constitute the essential distinguishing characteristic of a concept's referents, and the "proper" defining characteristic of that concept. I'll get into the details of Rand's view of such arcana as "fundamental characteristic" and "essential characteristics" and a later time. What is important now is to appreciate the importance of essences and definitions to the Objectivist Epistemology. Following Aristotle, Objectivism contends that definitions refer to the essence of a concept. Aristotle considered these essences as metaphysical; Objectivism considers them "epistemological."

Given the intimate relation of essences to definitions, it could easily be contended that Rand's problem of universals is tantamount to the problem of definitions. In any case, that is the practical upshot of the Objectivist Epistemology. The first four chapters of IOTE, which discuss concept formation, are without practical consequence. Concept formation is in fact much more complicated process than Rand's speculative musings about it would suggest; and moreover, as I contended in earlier posts, since so much of the work of concept formation is done by the cognitive unconscious, reading the first four chapters of IOTE will not improve your ability to form concepts. The mind simply does not work as Rand contends. Knowing about measurement-omission and conceptual common denominators is quite irrelevant to forming concepts. Rand's theory of concept formation is mere window dressing. Only when we come to her chapter on definitions (the longest chapter in IOTE) do we find doctrines that have any practical import. It is for this reason that I regard the chapter as constituting the heart and soul of the Objectivist epistemology. Essentially, Rand believes in the doctrine of immaculate definitions. For Rand, "The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions." This doctrine is not only false, it's exceedingly mischievous and even malicious. If taken to heart, it becomes a solvent which disorganizes the mind and renders rational thought very difficult.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 14

Relation of moral concepts to reality. Rand contended that the failure of "modern" philosophers to solve the "problem" of universals led to a "concerted attack" on man's conceptual faculty. A closer reading, however, suggests that Rand believed that "abstract" concepts constituted the chief problem, rather than just conceptual knowledge in general. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand argued that the formation of concepts refering to "perceptual concretes" is "fairly simple." [21] Only when the "conceptual chain" moves away from these perceptual concretes do problems emerge. In other words, it's not so much a "concerted attack" on man's conceptual faculty that concerns Rand. Despite Hume and Kant, Rand does not contend that people have trouble learning such concepts as fish, banana, or penis. It's the moral concepts that tend to preoccupy Rand. The primary practical raison d'etre of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is to demonstrate the connection of Rand's moral concepts to reality. How does it fare in this regard?

Per usual with Rand, not very well. In IOTE, Rand prefers to discuss simple "perceptual concrete" concepts, like table, furniture, desk, man, animal, etc. She says very little about moral concepts. The one exception is the concept justice, which gets an entire paragraph of analysis:

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them. Is his judgment automatically right? No. What causes his judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or his evasion of the evidence, or his inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is he to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn’t this a description of “objectivity”? Yes, “objective judgment” is one of the wider categories to which the concept “justice” belongs. What distinguishes “justice” from other instances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is “justice.”
She begins by asking which facts in reality gives rise to the concept justice, and then spends the rest of the paragraph artfully dodging the question. Instead of showing what the concept refers to, she opts instead to explain why human beings need justice, which is a different question altogether. Once again Rand makes big claims, only to let us down.

The Objectivization of Cato?

“Cato will become a more Objectivist organization." - New president John Allison, via tweet by Arthur Zey.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

It's Just Like Atlas Shrugged!

Not. Here's the number of US Government employees per capita in the last decade. The brief spike in 2010 was the temporary census hiring.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 13

Universals, definitions, and morality. In the 1949 book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver advanced the following rather unusual argument:

Like MacBeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence. [2-3]
Although Weaver's argument is phrased in platonistic terminology, in practical terms, it is not much different from Rand's:

Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.... The philosophers were unable to refute the witch-doctors claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations.
The differences in these two arguments is mostly terminological. Weaver seems more focused on the relation between universals and what he calls "transcendentals," by which he means, moral law. Rand, on the other hand, stresses the link between universals and knowledge in general, particularly "scientific" knowledge, which she contrasts with religious revelation. However, when we examine IOTE more closely, we find that Rand shares Weaver's passion for moral universals. The attack on universals, for both Rand and Weaver, is primarily an attack on the moral foundations of Western society.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemolgy 12

Essences as "epistemological." Rand explains this rather odd juxtaposition of terms as follows:

Let us note . . . the radical difference between Aristotle’s view of concepts and the Objectivist view, particularly in regard to the issue of essential characteristics.

It is Aristotle who first formulated the principles of correct definition. It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power, and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences and forms concepts accordingly.

Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.

Objectivism holds that the essence of a concept is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of man's knowledge. Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man's knowledge. [IOTE, 52]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rand Cultist Quote of the Day

The ARI's Yaron Brook:
“Unless Ayn Rand changes the direction of the world, we are doomed to suffer another dark ages...the next renaissance will begin when her books are rediscovered after 1,000 years of darkness.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 11

Natural kinds. Rand claimed to have solved the "problem of universals." But it is not clear that she even understood this problem. Rand frames the problem as follows:
The issue of concepts (known as "the problem of universals") is philosophy's central issue. Since man's knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man's knowledge depends on the validity of concepts. But concepts are abstractions or universals, and everything that man perceives is particular, concrete. What is the relationship between abstractions and concretes? To what precisely do concepts refer in reality? Do they refer to something real, something that exist--or are they merely inventions of man's mind, arbitrary constructs or loose approximations that cannot claim to represent knowledge?

Now contrast that with how the issue is framed on Wikipedia:

The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics about whether universals exist. Universals are general or abstract qualities, characteristics, properties, kinds or relations, such as being male/female, solid/liquid/gas, or a certain colour,[1] that can be predicated of individuals or particulars, or that individuals or particulars can be regarded as sharing or participating in. For example, Scott, Pat, and Chris have in common the universal quality of being human or humanity. While many standard cases of universals are also typically regarded as abstract objects (such as humanity), abstract objects are not necessarily universals. For example, numbers can be held to be particular yet abstract objects.

Rand's version of the problem of universals is different from Wikipedia's. Now I have no interest in getting into an argument over which version is "correct." Wikipedia is merely relating how the mediavals originally framed the problem. Rand was far more interested in the epistemological side of the issue. In fact, she pretty much ignores the metaphysical issue — so much so that it is not always clear how to characterize Rand's position on universals. Without explicitly saying so, Rand seems to reject the view that universals exist in reality. Instead, she seems to adopt a version of conceptualism. Only particulars exist in reality; but concepts (which for Rand are identical with universals) correspond "objectively" to multiple instances of particulars in reality. But how do they do so? Rand replies: A concept refers to a group of particulars in reality possessing characteristics in common which differ only in their measurements. This, however, is rather vague. Rand attacked nominalism for regarding "abstractions" as mere "'names' which we give to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the basis of vague resemblances." [IOTE, 2] But why isn't Rand's own theory guilty of the same charge? What makes her theory "objective" and nominalism "arbitrary"? Rand never explains, she merely asserts.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rand and Ryan

"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand... " - Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan

This is quite an interesting quote. It's rather along the lines of saying:

"The reason I got involved in business, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Karl Marx..."

"The reason I got involved in warfare, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Mahatma Ghandi..."

"The reason I got involved in Judaism, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ..."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 10

The Problem of Universals. Rand wrote (in an oft-quoted passage here at ARCHN):

To negate man's mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.... The philosophers were unable to refute the witch-doctors claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations. [FTNI, 30]

What evidence does Rand provide for this view? No relevant evidence. Only an obscure quote from an obscure historian of pragmatism:

All knowledge is in terms of concepts. If these concepts correspond to something that is to be found in reality they are real and man's knowledge has a foundation in fact; if they do not correspond to anything in reality they are not real and man's knowledge is of mere figments of his own imagination. [Edward C. Moore, quoted by Rand, IOTE, 1-2]

Note that Moore says nothing about the problem of universals and its relation to concepts. That connection Rand made on her own. I'm not aware of any major modern philosopher who has ever suggested that the failure to solve the problem of universals invalidates conceptual knowledge. Most modern philosophers ignore the whole issue. If they discuss the issue of universals at all, it is only in passing.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 9

Necessary validity of the senses. Objectivism has a rather strange doctrine which could be summed up as "the senses never err." Percepts are "the given, the self-evident." [IOTE, 5] The validity of the senses is "axiomatic." Those that attempt to deny this validity commit the "fallacy of the stolen concept." As Peikoff explains:

The validity of the senses is not an independent axiom; it is a corollary of the fact of consciousness.... If man is conscious of that which is, then his means of awareness are means of awareness, i.e., are valid. One cannot affirm consciousness while denying its primary form, which makes all the others possible. Just as any attack on consciousness negates itself, so does any attack on the senses. If the senses are not valid, neither are any concepts, including the ones used in the attack. [OPAR, ch. 2]

This is a very poor argument. Indeed, most of Rand's "stolen concept" arguments, particularly those relating to epistemology, are very poor. All "attacks" on the senses are ultimately attacks against the view that knowledge refers to something "out there," in "reality." Such attacks cannot be regarded as claims of knowledge; rather, they are radical denials of all knowledge. Although such denials are not true, they are not self-contradictory. But even if they were self-contradictory, it would not help Rand's case. Merely because someone makes a bad argument against x does not prove that x is "necessarily valid." Bad arguments against the validity of the senses cannot be used to establish the validity of the senses!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 8

Objectivist Theory of Perception. When it comes to the issue of perception, Rand tries to have it both ways. She seeks to be a direct realist while at the same time evading the charge of being naive or overly literal. She developed a theory that came suspiciously close to representationalism, but she fiercely denied being an indirect realist.

Rand left the exposition of her theory of perception to Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley. It is summed up on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as follows:

Our perceptual faculties place us in direct contact with reality. In this sense Rand's theory of perception is a version of direct realism, holding that the objects of perception are extramental entities (rather than, say, subjective experiences on the basis of which we infer entities as their causes)....  
Rand rejects the view that some perceptions are of the qualities of objects as they are independently of us (primary qualities), whereas others (secondary qualities) are caused by the primary qualities, and are entirely in the mind. Instead, she distinguishes between the content of a perception and its form; when we perceive an object as, e.g., square and red, what we perceive are its intrinsic features in a certain form, a form that is determined by the nature of the object, the nature of our perceptual organs, and the environment. Thus, we perceive the object's shape as square, and the reflectance properties of its surface as red; both are the result of the interaction of our perceptual organs with what is out there. Neither squareness nor redness belong either to the object apart from our mode of perception, or to our mode of perception apart from the object in its environment. Hence, these attributes are neither intrinsic nor subjective but relational and objective.
Thus while Rand is a direct realist in the sense explained above, she is not a naive realist in the sense of regarding all perceived attributes as enjoying equal extramental status. 

The point in dispute involves the term "extramental." As far as I know, that is not a term either Rand or Peikoff have ever used. Its use is required only because Objectivists have never told us whether percepts are mental or not. That is an issue they have artfully dodged, and here is why: if they were to admit that percepts are mental entities (as they admit, for example, that concepts are), they would be confessing that their realism is indirect and perhaps even representational. So when the Stanford Encylopedia decided to do a write-up on Ayn Rand (under the advisement of such Objectivist worthies as David Kelley and Gregory Salmieri), they had no choice but to describe percepts as "extra-mental."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 7

Fallacious Presumptions: The validity of knowledge depends on "proper" concept formation. Rand assumes that the "validity" of conceptual knowledge (and therefore knowledge in general) depends on how scrupulous and careful individuals form concepts:

The status of automatized knowledge in his mind is experienced by man as if it had a direct, effortless, self-evident quality (and certainty) of perceptual awareness. But it is conceptual knowledge --- and its validity depends on the precision of his concepts, which require as strict a precision of meaning (i.e., as strict a knowledge of what specific referents they subsume) as the definitions of mathematical terms. (It is obvious what disasters will follow if one automatizes errors, contradictions and undefined approximations.)

This paragraph provides the very core of what is wrong with Rand's epistemology; and it will require a number of posts to identify and elucidate all the various fallacious branches that sprout from this one trunk. Right now I wish to concentrate on the final sentence, the one embalmed in parenthesis: It is obvious what disasters will follow if one automatizes errors, contradictions and undefined approximations. Is it really obvious? Rand's assertion assumes the following: (1) concepts can be erroneous; (2) concepts can be contradictory; and (3) improper concept formation leads to concepts that are ill defined and merely approximate. I will contend that these three presumptions are wrong.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 6

Fallacious Presumptions: Rand's implicit theory of mind. Although Rand never developed a complete theory of mind, an implicit theory of the mind underlies many of her epistemological assertions. Indeed, it could be argued that Rand doesn't have just one but actually several implicit theories of mind, and that she makes use of which ever one is needed for the situation at hand.

The more fully developed theory underlies Rand's view of "automatization":

Learning to speak is a process of automatizing the use (i.e., the meaning and the application) of concepts. And more: all learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man's mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge. [IOTE, 65]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 5

Fallacious Presumptions: the facts upon which epistemology is based are discoverable through introspection. Early on in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand makes the following observation:

Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it?

It is the task of epistemology to provide the answer to the “How?”—which then enables the special sciences to provide the answers to the “What?”

Epistemology, according to Rand, tells us how we know? But how does epistemology know how we know? What gives epistemology its special authority to answer such a question? Rand never thinks to raise this query, let alone answer it. Yet it's a question that cuts to the very heart of Rand's epistemological project. It's a question Rand herself could never have answered, because her epistemology, as she conceived and practiced it, is a fraud.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 4

Fallacious Presumptions: over-emphasizing how one attains knowledge. In his book on logic, John Stuart Mill asserted the following: "By far the greatest portion of our knowledge, whether of general truths or of particular facts, being avowedly matter of inference, nearly the whole, not only of science, but of human conduct, is amenable to the authority of logic." This is the predominant view of what might be called the classical tradition in philosophy, running through Aristotle, Aquinas, and the early moderns. It is largely consistent with what Objectivism holds:

Logic is man’s method of reaching conclusions objectively by deriving them without contradiction from the facts of reality—ultimately, from the evidence provided by man’s senses. If men reject logic, then the tie between their mental processes and reality is severed; all cognitive standards are repudiated, and anything goes; any contradiction, on any subject, may be endorsed (and simultaneously rejected) by anyone, as and when he feels like it.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 3

Fallacious Presumptions: Active Consciousness.  In my last post, I discussed what I described as the primary fallacy behind the Objectivist epistemology, which involves Rand's conviction that justifying our knowledge is necessary to save western civilization. This fallacy, however egregious, merely touches the setting of the Objectivist epistemology within the larger body of Rand's philosophy. It doesn't actually touch upon the doctrines that constitute Rand's epistemology. The ad consequentiam fallacy upon which much of the persuasive force of the Objectivist epistemology rests does not, in itself, prove that this epistemology is fallacious; it merely serves as a distraction to objective analysis. Once we remove the cloud of danger in which Rand cloaks her speculations, we can begin to look at the Objectivist epistemology with colder, more analytical eyes. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Objectivist To Run Cato (Temporarily)

Successful banker and Ayn Rand Institute board member John Allison IV has been appointed as the acting head of Cato following an ugly public battle for control between former head Ed Crane and the fellow founders Koch brothers. Allison, while reasonably prominent, is a rather bland figure if his recent interview in Ayn Rand Nation is anything to go by. Certainly while he substantially funded various Rand related programs in a few colleges, there seems little about his values-based approach in his former bank, BB&T, that is actually very Randian. If anything it's old-fashioned conservative business ethics, and somewhat refreshing at that. Probably the most interesting thing about it is the spectacle of an ARIan consorting openly with libertarians! Clearly the Yaron Brook approach of corporatist compromise rather than purist isolationism is winning out at ARI HQ. Former Cato employee Will Wilkinson has some concerns as to foreign policy however. Watch this space.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 2

The primary fallacy behind the Objectivist Epistemology. Since human cognition (mostly) operates below the threshold of consciousness, the operations of the mind are not available to introspection; nor can these operations be deduced a priori, since no matter of fact can be determined by a priori reasoning. Rand, in embarking on her epistemological project, found herself in a bit of a bind. She could not base her epistemology on experience (i.e., introspection) or on logic, since neither of these processes can penetrate beneath the veil of the cognitive unconscious. Where, then, is the persuasive force behind Rand's epistemology? How was Rand to convince her followers that her epistemological speculations accorded with reality?

Unable to appeal either to fact or logic, Rand appealed to an old standby: sheer intimidation. If she couldn't persuade with sweet reason, she would resort to browbeating instead. Here's how it works. Rand begins by arbitrarily declaring that man's mind is under attack and needs to be defended.

To negate man's mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.... The philosophers were unable to refute the witch-doctors claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations. [FTNI, 30]

By "invalidating" conceptual knowledge, modern philosophers opened the door to mysticism, altruism, and collectivism:

It is the philosophy of the mysticism-altruism-collectivism axis that has brought us to our present state and is carrying us toward a finale such as that of the society presented in Atlas Shrugged. It is only the philosophy of the reason-individualism-capitalism axis that can save us and carry us, instead, toward the Atlantis projected in the last two pages of my novel. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 1

Introduction. Now we venture forth into the thorniest reaches of Rand's philosophy: the Objectivist Epistemology. Rand's epistemology is largely speculative and rationalistic. It's conclusions were determined well in advance and the arguments were added later. It contains a great deal of what can only be described as imaginary assumptions; that is, assumptions presumably based on "introspection," which, as is well known from experimental psychology, is illusory, at least in terms of monitoring cognition. Most of our thinking occurs below the threshold of consciousness, hidden from view; so how Rand actually knows the things she claims to know about human cognition is often a bewildering mystery. One of the main conceits of Objectivism is that epistemology provides a method of cognition:

Man is a being of volitional consciousness: beyond the level of percepts—a level inadequate to the cognitive requirements of his survival—man has to acquire knowledge by his own effort, which he may exercise or not, and by a process of reason, which he may apply correctly or not. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion. He needs a method of cognition, which he himself has to discover: he must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it? It is the task of epistemology to provide the answer to the “How?”—which then enables the special sciences to provide the answers to the “What?”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 26

Human nature and politics. Rand's politics is not entirely free of the contagion of her view of man. Rand's so-called "philosophy of history" (i.e., her theory of historical change) acts as a transmission belt between her theory of human nature and her political philosophy.

(1) An individual's political philosophy depend on his ethics, which depends on his epistemology/metaphysics. If by ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics you mean explicit philosophy, this view is inapplicable to most people. Explicit philosophies tend to be mere rationalizations: self-conscious window dressing draped over the cognitive unconscious, which does most of the heavy cognitive lifting and does not think in terms of broad philosophical abstractions. Moreover, the genesis of explicit philosophies generally suggests that the causation tends to go in the other direction; that is to say, people tend to begin with a political philosophy, which they rationalize with various ethical rationalizations. Epistemology and metaphysics are usually ignored altogether; but when they are brought in at all, they are almost always brought in last. This is true even in Rand's case. Her early writings are dominated by politcal and ethical concerns; only later did she begin to dabble in metaphysics and epistemology

Now one way to skirt around these objections is to contend that individuals have "implicit" philosophies in which the political depends on the ethical, and the ethical on the epistemological, and so on. Everyone, Rand contended, has a philosophy; and if they don't have an explicit philosophy, they must have an implicit one.

The trouble here is that Rand's view of how implicit philosophies are developed and formed is heavily influenced by her false view of human mind. For Rand, an individual's implicit philosophy is formed by premises that have been integrated by the "conscious" mind:

Your subconscious is like a computer—more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions—which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. If you programmed your computer by conscious thinking, you know the nature of your values and emotions. If you didn’t, you don’t....
The quality of a computer’s output is determined by the quality of its input. If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character. You have probably heard the computer operators’ eloquent term “gigo”—which means: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The same formula applies to the relationship between a man’s thinking and his emotions.

As I have stated repeatedly, there is no evidence that the human mind works like this, and an enormous amount of evidence that it doesn't. Human behavior, whether political or otherwise, is not determined or strongly influenced by broad philosophical premises. Whether those premises are explicit or implicit is entirely irrelevant. Rand got this wrong in a very big way and it has enormous implications for her political philosophy. For Rand needs this doctrine to make her political philosophy realizable. In order for Objectivism to achieve its political ends, political philosophy must depend on ethics, which in turn must depend on metaphysics/epistemology; because if this is not so, then Objectivism becomes politically impotent.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 25

Human nature and ethics. Among Rand's more enlightened admirers, there is a tendency to simply ignore Rand's obvious cluelessness about human nature and to instead concentrate on those aspects of her philosophy that depend much less on her view of man. Rand, it is acknowledged, may have been mistaken about man and history. But Rand's view of man is hardly the kernel of Objectivism. What most Objectivists care the most about are Rand's ethical and political views. They constitute the very heart of Objectivism. It is on such subjects that Rand has the most to offer.

But is this view in fact true? Are Rand's ethics and politics free from the contamination of her view of man? Not necessarily so. In this post, I will examine the extent to which Rand's ethics depend on her theory of human nature.

Rand's view of man contains several assumptions important to her ethics:

(1) Reason as a source of motivation. Although Rand never claimed that reason can be a source of motivation, her ethics tacitly assumes it. When Rand declares that values can be objective and absolute, free from the taint of "whims" and other natural dispositions, she is in effect declaring that human beings can be motivated solely by reason, without any reference to sentiments, desires, or innate proclivities. This position is deeply problematic: for in the absence of emotive content, how can we explain why anyone would value something? To say that a value is entirely rational and objective, free from the taint of whims and other subjective arcana, is to suggest that values can be determined without reference to emotive content. Rand never clearly explained how this was possible. And there is a good reason for this: it is not possible. Rand defines reason as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses." Reason, in other words, is a faculty which engages in a task. It does not provide motivations, desires, sentiments, etc. At best, reason can tell you how to attain an end; but it cannot tell you why you should pursue a given end. An end must be pursued for its own sake, independent of "reason." The faculty that "identifies" and "integrates" sensory material is not the faculty that provides motivations. People are motivated, not by identification and integration, but by sentiment and desire.

Oddly, this incoherence about motives is reflected in Rand's theory of human nature by her strange doctrine of primary choice. According to Objectivism, “The choice to focus is man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend” [L Peikoff, OPAR, 59) What is particularly odd about this doctrine is that this primary choice is regarded as something that cannot be explained (that is why it's "primary"). Now let's stop and think about this for a moment. How are choices normally explained? Usually, in reference to some motivation. People decide to behave in a certain manner for specific reasons; and those reasons constitute their motives. To say that a choice cannot be explained is therefore tantamount to declaring that it is unmotivated. The primary choice for Objectivism, the "root choice on which all other choices depend," is an unmotivated choice. Thus incoherence, and, indeed, outright denial of motivation lies at the very heart of the Objectivist theory of human nature, just as it does at the heart of its ethics.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 24

Human Nature and epistemology. Some Objectivists, particularly of the non-orthodox variety, are willing to admit that Rand's theory of human nature is flawed. They merely fail to appreciate what this means in the context of the rest of her philosophy. Rand's theory of human nature is not some extraneous doctrine which can easily be amputated from the rest of Objectivism. Many doctrines in other branches of Rand's philosophy depend on Rand's view of human nature. If that view is incorrect or flawed, this has enormous implications for the rest of Objectivism.

In her theory of human nature, Rand made several assumptions important to her epistemology:

(1) That there is nothing in the unconscious (or "subconscious") that is not acquired by conscious means. Orthodox Objectivism is rather inflexible in its view on this matter. Leonard Peikoff, during the Q & A of his lectures on Objectivism (and in the presence of Ayn Rand), explained the Objectivist position as follows:

Objectivism does not subscribe to the idea of an unconscious at all. We use the term “subconscious” instead—and that is simply a name for the content of your mind that you are not focused on at any given moment. It is simply a repository for past information or conclusions that you were once conscious of in some form, but that are now stored beneath the threshold of consciousness. There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means. The subconscious does perform automatically certain important integrations (sometimes these are correct, sometimes not), but the conscious mind is always able to know what these are (and to correct them, if necessary). The subconscious has no purposes or values of its own, and it does not engage in diabolical manipulations behind the scenes. In that sense, it is certainly not “dynamic.”

This view of subconscious (i.e., unconscious) mental processes is simply wrong. Empirical psychology has discovered that consciousness is merely the tip of the iceberg, and that the "adaptive" unconscious plays a much larger role in cognition and decision making than most people realize:

Some of Freud’s ideas [about human unconscious] have been verified, at least in a general sense. For example, one of the basic premises of psychoanalysis — that people possess unconscious defensive processes that protect their self-esteem — has been well established. But Freud’s view of an infantile, primitive unconscious has proved to be far too limited; the unconscious is much more sophisticated and powerful than he imagined. Humans possess a powerful set of psychological processes that are critical for survival and operate behind the conscious mental scene. 
These processes, called the “adaptive unconscious,” are intimately involved in how we size up our world, perceive danger, initiate action, and set our goals. It is the unconscious that allows us to learn our native language with no conscious effort, recognize patterns in our environments while we think about something else, and develop reliable intuitions to guide our actions.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 23

Rand's arguments against innate predispositions. As far as I can make out, Rand made two arguments against innate predispositions: (1) argument from free will; and (2) the argument from innate ideas. Each argument is forced and will only convince die hard Objectivists. The sort of "reasoning" Rand employs is precisely of the sort employed in rationalization: which is to say, the conclusion of the argument has been determined ahead of time; there was never any chance of Rand concluding, from the weakness of her arguments or the absence of evidence, that she was wrong.

(1) Argument from free will. The argument appears in Galt's Speech:

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. 

While this is directed against a specific set of tendencies (i.e., "tendency" to evil), it (presumably) is meant to apply to all tendencies. Like so many arguments in Objectivism, it tacitly assumes premises which are either contrary to experience or inconsistent with Objectivism's general outlook. The argument equates free will with the ability to choose. If something cannot be chosen, the will can't be regarded as free. Since an innate proclivity cannot be chosen, Rand's argument, if it were consisently applied, would over-rule all such proclivities. Human beings, for example, will experience hunger if they have not eaten in a long time. This tendency is almost certainly innate: so why doesn't it abrogate free will? A man does not choose to be hungry; it is a hardwired feature which he is born with. Nonetheless, no Objectivist would argue that hunger for food is contrary to free will. Yet if a man experienced a hunger for status and if this hunger was assumed to be innate, this would be considered contrary to free will!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reason Fluffs Atlas 2

Reason becomes the thinking man's Hello magazine in this new piece devoted to energetically fluffing the Atlas Shrugged 2 movie.

Amusingly, in this puff-tastic item writer Brian Doherty somehow forgets to mention that Pt 1 was one of the most notorious box office bombs of 2011. Instead, he refers to an "official critical reception" that "wasn't that great" - a masterly piece of understatement, given the average review rating of 3.5 out of 10 - and asserts that "normal folk seemed to like it better than credentialed tastemakers" despite the fact that said "normal folk" singularly failed to show up at the box office, and that as usual Randroids block voted on net sites like Rotten Tomatoes to prop up Atlas' user rating. We also hear about "encouraging" dvd and on-demand sales. No figures are mentioned, so here's a couple: it's currently ranked #1,240 in Amazon, and we know they made at least 100,000 copies due to this distinctly un-Galtian screwup.  They need about $18m or more so at $12.99 retail, do the math. Keeping with the Hello-type flavour, we also get gushing descriptions of the set design and acting that would be perhaps more appropriate for Posh'n'Becks' latest nursery interior. Even the old The Fountainhead movie gets a fluffing, with its dud reputation blamed on the studio editing it against Rand's will - despite the fact that Rand demanded, and got, unprecedented artistic control over the movie. 

A few tidbits sneak thru the PR blurbing. We learn that the real reason Part 2's been recast is because they didn't get binding contracts from the actors in Part 1 to do the followup; hence they all appear to have jumped out rather than end up once more in the same train wreck. We also learn that the producers have seemingly learned nothing from the previous debacle. They seem to think "the look" of the film is the magic bullet for success, despite the fact that the basic Randian absurdities highlighted by Greg in his great review below are the fundamental problems with the project - and that they get worse as the book progresses. In fact the producers seem to have doubled down on rather than diluted the Rand factor, with anachronistic phrases like "looters" and "moochers" now featuring prominently in the script.

In other words, no matter how much the Reason blurb-o-mat tries to talk it up, Pt 2 sounds a lot like Pt 1. Only worse.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 22

Atlas Shrugged Part 1 and human nature. With the threatened second version of Atlas Shrugged beginning production, I finally got around to slogging my way through the first part of this epic work in progress, which is now available as a streaming option over at Netflix. I can see quite clearly why the movie failed at the box office. It's hardly the fault of the director or the actors or production values. While obviously not a big budget effort, no amount of money or high-end production values could have salvaged this turkey. Nor would better direction or better acting make a jot of difference. The movie fails because its characters, particularly the protagonists, are grossly unrealistic; and they are unrealistic because Rand's novel demonstrates a complete cluelessness about human nature. Human beings simply don't talk or behave like they are shown talking and behaving in this movie. People can tolerate a very wide degree of fantasy and irrealism in a movie; but they can't tolerate behavior that doesn't jive with their sense of human nature. The situations may be as unrealistic as one likes; but if human beings do not behave as human beings, the movie will come off as bewildering and senseless.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 actually starts off somewhat promising. Using news reports compiled in clever editing, we get an exposition of a world heading toward bankruptcy and anarchy. The attempt to justify the re-emergence of railroads in 2016 as a consequence of high gas prices may be a bit over the top, but then, if the movie had been graced by realistic human beings, this would not have mattered. The first hint that the movie will quickly go off the rails comes when we hear the novel's signature line, spoken by a tramp in a diner, "Who is John Galt." This catch phrase never really convinces in the novel, and in the movie it immediately strikes a note of absurdity. This is followed by an even more preposterous scene involving a shadowy John Galt, dressed in hat and trench coat. He utters some Randian boilerplate to Midas Mulligan, after which we are told that Mulligan has subsequently disappeared without a trace.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Doubling Down.

"Atlas Shrugged Part 2", featuring an all new cast, has started shooting. This time it will work, really.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Review of Weiss' "Ayn Rand Nation"

Gary Weiss' new tome, Ayn Rand Nation, looks to be the first critical examination of Rand from the Left that we've seen since Ellis' Is Objectivism a Religion? It's well written, well researched, and, despite all the anti-market innuendo, makes for an absorbing read. Its main value is the glimpse it gives us into the lives of several prominent Objectivists. A secondary virtue of the book is that it provides a critique of Rand's doctrinaire laissez-faire capitalism from a strong pro-regulation, pro-big government view. Sometimes Weiss' arguments are very good; sometimes they are not so good. The books main weaknesses is that it tries to squeeze Objectivism and the Tea Party into a left-wing narrative that is, in many important respects, not in accord with the facts.

Weiss' main thesis is that Rand is much more influential than people realize and that, unless she is vigorously opposed by morally enlightened individuals (i.e., people who agree with Mr. Weiss), American society will be hijacked by Objectivism. He quotes ARI Director Yaron Brook's blueprint for the future: ""A hundred years from now, I think Objectivism will be the dominant secular philosophy in the United States." Weiss believes that Brook's prediction "makes logical sense." I suspect Weiss regards the threat of Objectivism as credible because he buys into the way Rand frames the debate between left and right. Weiss gives credence to the left-wing carricature of conservatism as a mean, anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state ideology. He believes, for instance, that the Tea Party advocates full "laissez-faire" capitalism, and describes Congressman Paul Ryan's plan to save Medicare "an incremental step toward a goal long favored by Objectivists — abolition of Medicare." For Weiss, right-wing economic ideology is merely a rationalization for the predatory and callous behavior of business elites on Wall Street, and he spends much of Ayn Rand Nation attempting to explain why decent people in the Tea Party buy into an ideology which, he contends, is not in their self-interest. He fails to realize that when Tea Partiers complain about over-regulation or high taxes, they are not thinking exclusively in terms of Sarbanes–Oxley or Dodd-Frank. Indeed, they may not be thinking of Wall Street at all, but of Main Street. Starting a business not only involves huge financial risks (as many businesses fail, something leftist critics of the market such as Weiss blithely ignore), but may involve wading through oceans of bureaucratic red tape. While middle class families struggle to pay their mortgages, tax burdens remain onerous. Meanwhile, local, state, and federal governments continue to amass regulations. California recently passed a law that requires child seats until a kid is at least 4'9" tall or nine years old. On the Federal level we have the immense regulatory burden of Obamacare, which is threatening to make health care unaffordable to the middle class. Regulations are so complex that they can neither be followed nor enforced. Instead, they merely give bureaucrats arbitrary power over the citizenry, as we see with the EPA, where we find public officials declaring this or that piece of private property a "wetlands," much to the detriment to the titular owners of the property. While such laws (or bureaucratic meddling) may be "well-meaning," they do come off as rather patronizing and heavy-handed, if not actually harmful and tyrannical. They are poles apart from the pioneer spirit that once prevailed in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 21

Innate components of religion. Objectivism considers religion a mere execrescence of irrationality, a product of wrong premises misintregrated into the subconscious. What evidence do Objectivists present on behalf of this hypothesis? None whatsoever. In fact, Rand herself does not appear to have even considered the issue of evidence.

One problem that Objectivism runs into right from the start is the near universality of religion. We find it nearly everywhere, even among isolated peoples. If religion were merely a product of premises, we would expect to find more variety in the world at large, as some cultures would choose religious premises and hence become religious, while other cultures would choose non-religious premises and hence become secular. Moreover, since religion (at least according to Objectivism) is "irrational," and since the irrational is impractical and even "evil," we would expect non-religious cultures to have a competitive advantage over religious cultures, so that over time, the non-religious, through a kind of natural selection, would triumph over and replace the religious. Oddly enough, this has not happened.

There is one major exception to the universality of religion: contemporary Europe. Soviet Russia and communist China could also be seen as exceptions as well, except for the fact that religion was brutally repressed in those countries, and that communism itself is a sort of secular religion. Europe, however, is one example that might fit within Rand's theory. The problem is, it might not fit. There may exist special circumstances in Europe which enable the natural proclivities toward religion to be supressed. After all, if Europeans have chosen non-religious premises, there must be a reason for this. While Objectivism often ignores the whole issue of why individuals in a special set of circumstances might choose one premise rather than another, it nonetheless would appear an important question to address if one is interested in discovering the truth of the matter.

In the United States, religion still remains a fairly strong force. More than half of Americans attend church at least once a month, and more than a third attend church once a week. Over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Nonetheless, 20% of Americans never attend church, and another 25% "seldom" attend church. Oddly, church attendance rose in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but returned to pre-9/11 levels within two months. This suggests that religiousity increases, not as a result of any inexplicable or causeless acceptance of "religious" premises, but because many (perhaps even most) people are hardwired to turn to religious constructs when they feel seriously threatened. It might very well be that Europe is predominantly secular and non-religious because Europeans are wealthy and they feel safe. Take away the wealth and the safety, and Europe would return to religion (or the secular equivalent thereof).

Monday, March 05, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 20

Rationality within the limits of human nature. Rand regarded "reason" as the supreme virtue: "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism," she wrote; "and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." Empirical studies have shown, however, that human beings do not "follow" reason, but rather tend to use their reasoning skills to justify whatever conclusions they reach via emotion, desire, sentiment, and/or intuition.

To a certain extent, Rand was aware of this: it is a theme of much exasperation in her writings. But rather than assuming that the non-rational was a built-in feature (or bug) of human nature, Rand hunted for an explanation for why so many human beings refused to "follow" reason. She found her answer in a contrived and implausible theory of history, where she placed the failure of human rationality squarely on the shoulders of modern philosophers, particularly Kant. "The man who . . . closed the door of philosophy to reason, was Immanuel Kant," she averred. People don't follow reason because philosophers have told them that the human mind is impotent and that they must do as they are told. While Rand and her disciples sometimes add conditions or elaborations to this view, basically that is what it amounts to. The inability of modern philosophers to "validate" reason (by solving the problem of universals) explains why people don't follow "reason" and accept Rand's views.

It was by framing the issue is such extravagently anti-empirical terms that Rand was able to avoid the more obvious conclusion: namely, that human beings don't follow reason because, as Hume explained, reason as at best a method, not an aim or desire; and, morever, the attempt to reason from "is" premises to an "ought" conclusion is invalid. Rand appears not to have understood any of this. She assumed that reason was man's only means of knowledge and from this premise tacitly presumed that human beings must achieve rationality through individual reason. It never occured to her that rationality might be achieved through some other means than individual reasoning, or that there may be other means of knowledge which, in certain circumstances, could prove useful, if not necessary.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 19

Human nature and "reason." Rand places enormous stress on individual conscious reasoning. "Reason" is her chief moral virtue and is considered a necessity to man's survival. Not surprising, Rand regarded "reason" as particularly important in ethics. Rand regarded any attempt to derive ethical behavior from intuition or gut feelings or emotion as mere "whim worship," which she denounced in fierce, vigorous language.

There are several problems with this point of view, some of which have already been explored on this blog. In the first place, it is logically fallacious to reason from two is premises to an ought conclusion, something Rand appears not to have understood. Secondly, it is psychologically impossible to derive a moral end solely from reason. Reason is a method, a means for attaining an end. But an end must be wished for it's own sake, because it satisfies some sentiment or desire. Reason can never provide that end by its own resources alone. And finally, there exists an immense body of research demonstrating that reason is not used to make moral decisions; on the contrary, where reason comes in is after the decision has been made. The role of reason is not to make moral choices, but to defend them after the fact.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

We Just Live In It.

Noted investigative journalist Gary Weiss, author of 2006's ahead-of-the-curve "Wall St Versus. America", puts the spotlight on Rand's enduring and little-publicised influence over America's modern business and political elites in "Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul"(released Feb 28th). Gary's sent the ARCHNblog an advance galley which we'll review soon, and he's agreed to an interview in a few weeks. Stay tuned. Meantime here's the Kirkus Review:
Weiss (Wall Street Versus America, 2006, etc.) jumps headfirst into the complex socio-cultural maelstrom that that was Ayn Rand, spotlighting her allies, enemies, nemeses and acolytes.

The author has been in the trenches of financial reportage since before Black Monday 1987, examining corruption, mob involvement, takeovers, bailouts, regulatory scandals and a long list of game-changing power plays in every corner of the stock market. Here the author looks at Rand’s immense influence on a variety of sectors of American life, especially politics and economics. If you thought her renowned novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead had been analyzed under every possible microscope, think again. Intrigued by a 1974 photo depicting Rand with Alan Greenspan and President Ford in the White House, Weiss embarks on a quest to excavate the oft-shifting strata of Rand's political doctrine, Objectivism, which she deemed “a philosophy for living on earth," starting with her infamous writings. The love-hate lens through which our society continues to view her self-interested, capitalist canon is, in Weiss' dogged hands, meticulously eye-opening—yet it remains confounding to conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike. Anointing her "the godmother of the Tea Party,” Weiss argues that Rand's influence on Greenspan, Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke and other major players in the contemporary financial and legislative landscape is significant; she suggests that the anti-government seeds she planted may now be taking root. Weiss writes, "[s]uch is the Ayn Rand vision of paradise: an America that would resemble the lands from which our ancestors emigrated, altruism confined to ignored, fringe texts, grinding poverty and starvation coexisting alongside the opulence of the wealthy."
A scrupulous and sobering investigation, vital for our times.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leonard's Shitlist

For fans of Objectivist Kremlinology everywhere, a bunch of little-known ARI enthusiasts have set up a new site, Ostensibly and hilariously described "a tool to help each person decide independently", in practice it is simply The Official Leonard Peikoff Shitlist where the ancient enemies such as David Kelley, Libertarianism, and The Brandens can be ritually vilified, and all-new Enemies of Objectivism can be thrillingly unmasked by a some Junior Woodchucks waving a copy of "Fact And Value."

The latest Enemy of Objectivism is, like most Enemies of Objectivism, a former close associate and orthodox ARIan Diana Hsieh. In fact, the site seems to be really all about this latest schism; the entries on standard villains like the Brandens are meagre and have a pro-forma feel. Hsieh's an odd figure. She was first a Kelleyan Objectivist, then in a dramatic conversion flipped to the Ayn Rand Institute, issuing the required endless blistering denunciations of her former friends and colleagues in the process. Her orthodox enthusiasm later led her to a similarly overwrought denunciation of her former friend and colleague, Ayn Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra. Now the wheel has turned, and it is she who is getting the anathema treatment. As usual, the intellectual content of the charges is close to nil; Hsieh's offending discussions are often breathtakingly inane, like whether it's ethical to eat severely retarded children should the situation require it (FYI, she thinks it is. The correct answer is, of course, let me know when this is actually a pressing problem mankind faces, then we'll discuss it.). The real issue is not anything discernibly to do with philosophy, but instead the fact that she disagreed with, and even worse said Bad Things (such as accusing him of being "horribly ignorant" and "armchair philosophising") about the aging emperor of the ARI.

Of course, almost everyone bar the slavish have immediately twigged that this is simply a shallow, limply conceived hit site. Hsieh has responded at length here, naturally failing to observe the irony that she has been the source of plenty of similar excommunications in the past. But the notable series of schisms over the past few years I would speculate is really just a sign of palace politics, of frantic jockeying for position as Peikoff's frail health and grip on the organisation - and reality - continues to deteriorate. After all, there is some money to be had, some future roles to be played, and some prestige to be garnered, even if it is only within the hermetic world of the Objectivist subculture. And judging by her track record, Hsieh has never needed a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Hat tip: Neil Parille

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 18

Psychopaths, vmPFC damage, and whim-worship. One of the central doctrines of Objectivism is the necessity of a "rational," "reason-based" morality. Human beings must follow their "rational" or "enlightened" self-interest. Emotions should not be used in moral judgments. That would amount to "whim-worship." According to Rand, people can and should follow "reason" at all times. To behave otherwise, to follow one's emotions instead of "reason," was tantamount to acting "like a zombie," without knowledge of the facts of reality. As Rand put it, "It means that a man acts in a state of temporary insanity."

Rand's view is in stark contrast with that of David Hume, who, in 1739, wrote that "reason is, and ought to only be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." We can only image vituperation with which Rand would have responded to Hume's statement. However, it is important to note that Hume is not merely asserting that reason ought to be the slave of the passions; he is also insisting that reason is the slave of the passions, and that it can't be otherwise. In the last twenty years, experimental psychology has been forced to admit that Hume's position comes much closer to the truth than Rand's. Psychologists have found that, although people can and often do reason about morality, they don't engage in reasoning in order to discover truth, but rather use reason to support their emotional intuitions. Moral reasonings serve strategic purposes such as managing one's reputation, building alliances, recruiting bystanders to support one's side in the conflicts and scuffles endemic to social life. [Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 46] Human beings act like "intuitive politicians striving to maintain appealing moral identities in front of multiple constituencies." [ibid, 75]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 17

Emotions as a form of Cognition. From Rand's writings, it is not always clear what role the emotions are supposed to play in her system. On the one hand, she asserts that emotions play no cognitive role. Indeed, given Rand's frequent condemnation of "whim worship," it's hard not to conclude that she distrusted emotions. She seems to have conceded, however, that, in the right circumstances, emotions can be a "means of enjoying life":

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. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others.