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.
In my last post, I quoted Jonathan Haidt insisting that "anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason." But if reason does not provide "valid" knowledge, what method does? Haidt responds as follows:
We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of a social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board). [The Righteous Mind, 90]
In other words, it turns out that truth is, in many circumstances, a "collective" endeavor: it is a product of individual minds within group dynamics. This is especially the case whenever truth is in the least controversial. Individuals can find truth on their own when that truth is mundane and doesn't violate special agendas or trample upon rooted convictions. But whenever we are confronted with a truth-claim that is controversial, then an individual's judgment is not enough. Open debate involving empirical testing becomes necessary. Where this is impossible truth becomes difficult and consensus impossible.
Rand's faith in the individual's reasoning power is thus unwarranted. That reasoning power may be effective when attacking rival truth claims, but it does not perform well in establishing it's own claims concerning matters of fact. Rand naively took her own mind as the standard of truth and seems to have been oblivious to the need for threshing out truth-claims through debate and critical testing. Although she strongly urged others to "check" their "premises," this was not advice that she herself ever followed. On the contrary, she often responded with intense hostility to criticism. Typical in this respect was her response to Sidney Hook's review of To the New Intellectual. Instead of responding to Hook's criticisms point by point, Rand insisted that Hook should be publicly condemned. Because Leonard Peikoff and Barabara Branden were students of Hook, they were were given a pass; but everyone else, including even Rand's friend John Hospers, were expected to take part in the public condemnation. As Hospers related years later:
Not long after, New York University's philosopher Sidney Hook attacked her in print, and she wanted me to take him on as well. Knowing Sidney, I was disinclined to do this. He already knew about my acquaintance with Ayn, but we had never discussed it further (I hardly ever saw him). Should I now condemn him publicly and destroy a long-standing friendship? I knew that this friendship would be at an end if I condemned him.
Ayn was sure that nothing less than a public condemnation was required to prove to him how much I was devoted to "intellectual objectivity." But she had very little conception of the manners and morals of professional academicians: they can get along well and even be friends, while disagreeing strongly with one another on rather fundamental issues. The philosophic arena was one for the friendly exchange of diverse ideas. But for her, it was a battlefield in which one must endlessly put one's life on the line. I was not willing to risk years of occasional friendly communion with Sidney by condemning him publicly, even if I thought he was mistaken in some of his allegations.
But for Ayn this was a betrayal. It almost cost us our friendship. In the end she attributed my attitude to the misfortune of having been brainwashed by the academic establishment, at least with regard to their code of etiquette.
What Rand failed to appreciate is that the "code of ettiquette" that Hospers writes about is the glue which holds together communities of truth-seeking intellectuals. If everyone began publicly condemning those they disagreed with, that community would break down and all that remain would be a loose assemblages of ideological factions crying anathema against each other.
Rand and her disciples can wax eloquent about "reason" all they like, but at the end of the day they know very little about truth seeking within the limits of human nature. There is a price for denying human nature, and not understanding how truth emerges as the property of a social system is one of them. Yet it's not merely an issue of being ignorant of these basic facts about the search for truth. Objectivism, because of its anti-group biases and its unwillingness to check its own premises, ends up wallowing in irrationality.
Nice post. You capture not only Rand's unwarranted emphasis on reason, but the utterly non-collaborative nature of Objectivist thinking and writing. It's all about heavy-handed lecturing and one-way flow of information, no matter which Objectivist is writing, like sermons from on high.
I don't think your explanation is that much better than the Objectivist one. Putting a group of irrational people together can't produce rationality any more than one irrational person, and people don't naturally disconfirm each other.
I think the explanation lies more in the kinds of thinking that people adopt, and the fact that science as a discipline attracts certain kinds of people who lend themselves more to that process. But the history of science proves that any claim that a variety of people can converge towards a valid consensus is naive at best and ignores social context, for one thing.
@Francois Tremblay: Saying that you can get at the truth only by cooperating in a group is not the same as saying that any group that collaborates will arrive at the truth. In science you also need that which is loosely called "the scientific method", a method that has evolved over the centuries for discovering the truth by a collective effort of hypothesizing and testing.
Individual scientists may err, but others will be quick to point out his errors, so in the long run only those ideas that can consistently stand the tests of criticism and reproducibility will survive. The method is not infallible, but the spectacular development of science and the ensuing technology are witnesses of its soundness.
PS: the new preview function doesn't function properly, the preview text is all over the page...
Furthermore it's irritating that I have to type now new 2 anti-robot words every time I edit and check my message, that wasn't necessary in the previous version!
Oh, and the text "Publish your comment" is hardly readable, in those white characters on a very light grey background...
Oops, "anonymous" was me, I'm still not used to the new format...
The "scientific method" doesn't really exist, there is no one scientific method. What it really is, is a signal that gets the right kind of people to join the group we call scientists. That's why they tend to be more eager to disconfirm other people than the general population, or to be more objective than the general population, and so on. But all of that is in relation to the social context. It has nothing to do with ideas being falsified.
Science works because it attracts the kind of people who like the truth more than the general population... but it also attracts bad elements. Fortunately, there's usually (but not nearly always) enough of the former so the truth eventually outs.
The "scientific method" doesn't really exist...
Sure, in some ideal Platonic sense, the scientific method does not exist, but then again, what does?
The scientific method exists in practice, and you can weirdly wave your hands around all you want about scientists having some predisposition toward "liking truth" more than other people. It doesn't change to stone fact that there is a method, scientists use it, and it gets results.
Science works because it attracts the kind of people who like the truth more than the general population
Perhaps true, but misleading. Even it scientists are more interested in the truth than the general population, given how indifferent most people are about any truth that is not vital for their survival, that's really not saying much. Many scientists are loathe to give up on a pet idea, and will often conclude that a given experimental falsification is invalid. Only when the falsifications became a deafening roar that they are forced to make a hasty retreat.
Science also has some rules of thumb that scientists follow in their work and in judging that of other scientists. Parsimony is sought in explanations. The simplezt adequate explanation is probably right. Testability is sought. If something cannot be tested then it probly does not matter whether it is correct. Consilence is sought when confirming hypothesis. The is a universal set of natural laws and and there should be multiple lines of evidence supporting a hypothesis.
"It doesn't change to stone fact that there is a method, scientists use it, and it gets results."
Uh no... that's a myth. Sorry.
"Even it scientists are more interested in the truth than the general population, given how indifferent most people are about any truth that is not vital for their survival, that's really not saying much. Many scientists are loathe to give up on a pet idea, and will often conclude that a given experimental falsification is invalid. Only when the falsifications became a deafening roar that they are forced to make a hasty retreat."
... not sure why you're making my point, but okay... Or are you seriously stating that scientists think no differently from the general population?
@FT: You're attacking a straw man, namely the idea that the "scientific method" is some formulaic approach that is followed by every scientist as a guarantee for success. Perhaps that's a caricature that is taught in schools and in some popular accounts.
It's much more general however, a set of general principles, including a collective approach, that has proven in the course of the centuries to be essential for obtaining useful knowledge about the world. The proof of the pudding: the enormous success of science and its offshoot technology during the last century, as the general principles for doing scientific research became more or less established.
A good description can for example be found at http://www.flame.org/~cdoswell/How_science_works.html
Re: the scientific method, all I will do is reiterate Popper's point: there is no need for a "scientific method". What are needed are standards of criticism. I did not think the "Myth of Magical..." etc was a very good piece of criticism as the writer did not seem to understand what he was criticising; so it largely fell into the same old traps. The Bartley footnote only heightened the confusion.
Oh, now that I've pointed out the error, it's not a method any more but a "set of general principles." What-ever. It doesn't prove your side of the argument.
"Oh, now that I've pointed out the error, it's not a method any more but a "set of general principles.""
These are not mutually exclusive concepts. A method can be comprised of general principles.
You (and the author of your posted essay) want to define the "scientific method" as being more limiting and constricted than it actually is - and then declare it invalid or nonexistent. Sure, if you want to stack the argument in your favor like that, you can declare yourself the winner.
... not sure why you're making my point, but okay... Or are you seriously stating that scientists think no differently from the general population?
He is saying that you are so love with your claim that you are not considering how often scientists think like the general population. A serious consideration of this will explain why your claim is not as important as the give and take that occurs between scientists.
Or do you think that Newton didn't take his theology as seriously as his scientific achievements? If so, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he did, why do we hear so much about one but not the other?
The absurdity of this blog is indescribable.
P1 Rand upheld reason
P2 Reason is invalid (A premise asserted by what epistemic method? blank out)
C Reason dictates that we must reject Rand for upholding reason!
You, Mr Nyquist, are a fool and a fraud.
"The absurdity of this blog is indescribable."
I know what you mean. When people leave smirking straw man arguments featuring premises and conclusions which no one has used, one simply has to shake one's head at the sheer absurdity of it all.
Sorry, Strawnonymous. No one's saying reason is invalid, just that reason isn't the panacea Rand imagined it to be.
Got my copy of "The Righteous Mind" last week. Still stealing time from work to read it, but it has been great through the first chapter. Makes a good introduction to evolutionary psychology, IMHO.
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