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. 

There are a number of presumptions behind the Objectivist epistemology, some of them explicitly acknowledged, others merely implicit, on which Rand's entire speculative apparatus rests. One of the most important of these is the assumption of an active, volitional consciousness. Rand is quite explicit about this one. She begins the first chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (IOTE) with the following declaration: "Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active state." She fleshes out this position as follows:

Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions, that makes him man. Sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction, is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform it by choice. The process of abstraction, and of concept-formation is a process of reason, of thought; it is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. The pre-conceptual level of consciousness is nonvolitional; volition begins with the first syllogism. Man has the choice to think or to evade—to maintain a state of full awareness or to drift from moment to moment, in a semi-conscious daze, at the mercy of whatever associational whims the unfocused mechanism of his consciousness produces.

What this passage strongly suggests (without explicitly saying so) is that Rand believes that concepts are, or at least ought to be, formed consciously, as a matter of choice. Indeed, that is the implicit presumption behind her entire theory of concept formation presented in IOTE. Concept-formation, if done "properly," must emerge from the decision to focus one's mind. Otherwise, if the mind chooses not to focus,  concepts will presumably be formed "in a semi-conscious daze, at the mercy of whatever associational whims the unfocused mechanism of his consciousness produces."

Further evidence that concept-formation is (or ought to be) a consciously willed process is provided by Rand's response to the question whether abstraction (i.e., concept-formation) is a volitional process. Rand answered "Oh yes." When asked how people abstract for the first time, Rand answered:

No, [you don't will to abstract the first time,] you do something else volitionally. That is, you abstract volitionally, but you don't will it directly the first time. Do you know what you will? You will to observe. You use your senses, you look around, and your will is to grasp, to understand. And you observe similarities. Now you don't yet know that this is a process of abstraction, and a great many people never grasp consciously that that's what the process is. But you are engaged in it once you begin to observe similarities. [IOTE, 150]

From these remarks we can safely assume  that Rand believes that concept formation is a willed process, that human beings, including even toddlers, choose to form abstractions/concepts. Conceptualization is a matter of choice. It's an active process. It's not done passively or automatically. Even the toddler, although he has no explicit knowledge of abstraction or concepts, must choose to observe, to use his senses, to notice similarities. 

This view, on the face of it, is highly speculative and not very plausible. How does Rand know that toddlers choose to observe similarities? How does she know that any concepts emerge from an active, willed process of consciousness? This is not something that one can merely assume. It is a contention about matters of fact. Nor is it even a particularly plausible contention; on the contrary, the facts, as they are available to ordinary observation, flatly contradict Rand's view. What is known to ordinary observation is that all physiologically normal children develop conceptual knowledge. Now if conceptualization is volitional, a product of a conscious act of will, how can this be? If conceptualization were a matter of choice, wouldn't at least a few human beings choose not to conceptualize? And more to the point, this process of conceptualization, at least in early childhood, appears almost entirely unconscious. Volitional consciousness seems to have little if anything to do with it. Children are prompted by forces stronger than their volition to form an enormous number of concepts in a very brief period of time. While the cognitive unconscious may be quite active in the process of forming concepts, consciousness seems to be taking a much more passive role in the process. Indeed, no one remembers either willing or going through the process of concept-formation, either when they were children or even as adults. Concept-formation seems to be almost entirely an unconscious process.  It just happens, whether we will it or not. 

There are hence very strong reasons for believing that Rand is wrong in her assumption that concept-formation is a volitional, conscious process. It is no such thing. Concept-formation is largely an automatic, unconscious process. This has devastating consequences for Rand's epistemological project. The centerpiece of Rand's epistemology is her theory of concept-formation. Rand believed that by showing how concepts are formed, she could "validate" conceptual knowledge and save man's mind from philosophy of Immanual Kant. But if concept-formation is an unconscious, unwilled process, Rand's attempt to validate conceptual knowledge becomes entirely pointless. What is done unconsciously cannot be validated. Since the process by which concepts are formed is not available to consciousness, Rand's theory of concepts is entirely speculative. It has no basis in fact or observation. Rand is merely imagining how people might form concepts if consciousness played a larger role in the process. 

Rand's error here is fundamental. Her presumption that a volitional, active consciousness plays a central role in forming concepts is wrong. There is another related presumption which is nearly as important: it's a more general presumption that affects, not merely the Rand's theory of concepts, but her entire outlook on knowledge. It's the presumption of the importance of validation, with its concomitant tendency to grossly over-emphasize the processes by which knowledge is formed, rather than focusing mainly on the product of those processes. This presumption, along with its accompanying tendency, I will examine in my next post. 

No comments: