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!