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.

These views constitute gross exaggerations. While much of science may be amenable to logic, human conduct clearly isn't (see Hume on deriving an ought from an is); and the notion that, in the absence of logic, the "tie" between an individual's mental processes and reality would be severed is factually untrue. Here's what's true about logic: most people know little if anything of formal logic. Much of their thinking is, strictly speaking, illogical; yet they have little trouble holding a job, raising a family, and planning for their retirement. Those who believe that logic must (or at least should) hold empire over all thought really don't understand logic. The Objectivist view of logic is grossly simplistic and even primitive. Objectivists view logic as merely the most rudimentary sort of consistency, such as A is A; that is to say, like most people, Objectivists view contradiction in the starkest of terms, like a person saying one thing one moment and then immediately saying the exact opposite a moment later. That is an obvious contradition, and is recognized as such and condemned by almost everyone. But logic is far more subtle and rigorous than that. It finds contradictions even in the most useful types of inferences. For example, if I happen to notice that the streets and sidewalks outside my home are wet and thereby conclude that it has been raining, I have made inference that is both useful and invalid. Knowledge is fundamentally practical; and when logic becomes too exacting for practice, we ignore it. Every time a person makes an inductive inference, they are ignoring the rules of valid inference. Yet individuals make such inferences all the time and live to tell about it. As Morton Hunt has put it:
Logic enables us to judge the validity of our own deductive reasoning, but much of the time we need to reason non-deductively — either inductively, or in terms of likelihoods, or of causes and effects, none of which fits within the rules of formal logic. The archetype of everyday realistic reasoning might be something like this: This object (or situation) reminds me a lot of another that I experienced before, so probably I can expect much to be true of this one that was true of that one. Such reasoning is natural and utilitarian — but logically invalid....

Besides the impracticality of logical reasoning in everyday life, there is a second problem which relates directly to my main topic: namely, the emphasis logic places on the means by which an inference is made, rather than on the conclusion of the inference. The primary focus of logic is on whether conclusion of an argument is "valid." This involves examing how the argument is made. Validity is largely indifferent to the truth. It is concerned with the structure of the argument, with the relation of the premises to the conclusion.

An obssession with logic and validity, to the extent that it has any effect on one's habits of thought, is bound to make one far more interested in how individuals reach conclusions than in the conclusions themselves. Now Objectivism is clearly very much concerned with logic, with "method," with the process of reaching conclusions. Consider all the virtuous noise Objectivists make on behalf of "reason" and rationality. Yet these are conceived as processes. When Ayn Rand waxes eloquent about the virtue of rationality, she speaks solely about processes of thought:
The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality. It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

Notice that she says nothing about testing one's conclusions, or opening oneself up to criticism and/or peer review. That is not part of her virtue of rationality. For Rand, rationality means that all one's convictions are "chosen and validated by a process of thought." Moreover, this process must be "precise" and "scrupulous" and "directed" by a "ruthlessly strict ... application of logic." Rationality, for Rand, is achieved by choosing the correct method for reaching conclusinos. It involves the quality of one's thinking, which (supposedly) guarantees the quality of the results.

What is wrong with this approach? Well, far from leading to rational outcomes, this emphasis on processes of thought leads to rationalism, subjectivity, hubris, dogmatism, and irrationality. In the first place, a process of thought is a personal matter. It is not something that can be established or "validated." If you claim that your conclusions derive from a precise and scrupulous process of thought directed by logic, I can only take your word for it. Your claim in no way validates or proves your conclusions. On the contrary, it increases my suspicion of them, because you seem to be suggesting that your mind is better than the mind of other people, and that therefore the conclusions of your mind don't require rigorous testing. The fact is, nearly all dogmatists over-rate the powers of their intellect; and when somebody comes along claiming that his conclusions are true because his processes of thought are precise and logical, that should immediately raise suspicions. People who claim that their knowledge is "valid" or true because they know how to think (as Rand claimed) are not to be trusted.

Processes of thought are not only a closed book to other people, they are closed book to the individual thinker as well. Cognitive science has found that consciousness is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of human cognition takes place behind the curtain, beneath the watchful eye of consciousness. You can focus your mind as intensely as you please; it won't make you any more aware of the unconscious cognitive processes bubbling away beneath the surface of your sentience. Since what cannot be introspected cannot be directed, it is useless to insist on being precise and logical. Such precision and logic can only apply (to the extent that it can be applied at all) to that portion of your thought that remains accessible to consciousness; but that portion will often constitute the most superficial and simplistic aspect of your thought. The conscious mind is limited in the amount of data that it can handle at once (as even Rand admits). Complexity overwhelms it; nuance confuses it. The subtle and the complex are therefore left to the cognitive unconscious, which goes about its business in the dark, removed from the jealous attentions of the conscious mind. To assume that all these unconscious cogitations can be improved through greater focus, precision and logic is to assume the impossible. The conscious mind cannot improve or direct what it can't even see.

Now the knee jerk response of Objectivists to this sort of criticism of conscious thinking might be to accuse the critic of attacking the efficacy of consciousness. It is (tacitly) assumed by most Objectivists that if rationality cannot be achieved through a consciously directed process of thought, than rationality cannot be achieved at all. Yet this is false. It is based on an erroneous view of rationality. Rationality is not achieved by attending to one's processes of thought. How an individual reaches his conclusions is largely irrelevant. What is important is the degree to which those conclusions are tested and criticized by others. One's conclusions are so much grist for the mill of criticism. Rationality is achieved, not by a validated "process of thought," but by allowing others to challenge and rigorously test one's conclusions.

Rand went to great lengths to hermetically seal herself from criticism. She regarded criticism as a personal attack against herself, and responded accordingly. Her refusal to open herself to criticism and allow her philosophy to be effectively tested overturns her claims to rationality. Despite Rand's sincere enconiums on behalf of rationality, Objectivism, in practice, constitutes an attack on rationality. Rand's insistence that her philosophy was true because it was based on "reason" (i.e., on a rational process of thought) merely transformed what was supposed to be an empirical philosophy based on the facts of reality into a species of rationalism based on Rand's rather personal and eccentric agendas. Basing a philosophy on one's processes of thought is tantamount to special pleading. Those who persist in such practices have not yet learned how to be honest, wise, or rational.


Anonymous said...

Reading your last paragraph, it seems to speak more generally to our political-historical moment -- liberals and conservatives in the US treat their own ideologies this way. Neither side can abide criticism, and both take their politics very personally. Their respective positions are treated as if they were beyond discussion or criticism. At least, that's how it feels reading political blogs and comments on news stories.

While partisanship has always existed, you go back a generation or two, and there was sometimes honest disagreement, negotiation, and compromise between the two sides that would be shocking in today's with-us-or-against-us political environment.

In this sense, Rand was ahead of the curve, insisting on viewing "contradiction in the starkest of terms," and helping to set the tone for what was to come.

- Chris

Xtra Laj said...


The way I see it, the key is to divorce persuasion/logic from truth. They are distinct, even if they are often related in the minds of many.

Crawshaw said...

I agree mostly with your criticisms of ayn rand. I just have a few comments on the way you have presented your argument and then a few comments on the content of that argument.

You claim things about the human mind and cognition and interspection without giving citations. These are highly contentious subjects, and if you are claiming that these invalidate Rand's system, you clearly have to give citations to relevant literature. otherwise you are engaging in the same thing you accuse rand of: assertion without recourse to evidence.

Furthermore, you say that that "One's conclusions are so much grist for the mill of criticism" and also claim that this criticism comes from other people. Are you asserting that we cannot criticize our own conclusions, in principle, or are merely asserting the weaker conclusion that people often find it very hard to do such a thing, though it is still possible?

What, in your opinion, is the role of conciousness in thought?

gregnyquist said...

You claim things about the human mind and cognition and interspection without giving citations

In this post I cited Morton Hunt's The Universe Within, and I have cited other books in other posts, such as Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, Timothy Wilson's Stranger's to Ourselves, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and Don Ariely's Predictably Irrational.

These are highly contentious subjects

They're mostly contentious among those who are unfamiliar with the evidence. They are not all that contentious among those familiar with the literature on the subject.

re you asserting that we cannot criticize our own conclusions

Experimental psychologists have literally run hundreds tests on this, and they have overwhelming found that human beings tend not to be very good at criticizing themselves. Does this mean it's impossible? No, not necessarily. But it does indicate that perhaps the first step toward developing the ability to criticize oneself is to recognize the innate tendency against effective self-criticism, and to become more sincerely welcoming of criticism from others (something not easy to do).

What, in your opinion, is the role of conciousness in thought?

I suspect we haven't quite figured this out yet. Psychologists and cognitive scientists are beginning to realize that the older, common sense based views of consciousness are probably deeply flawed. Psychological experiments tend to strongly support the view that what Timothy Wilson calls the "adaptive unconscious" plays a much greater role in cognition and decision making than previously assumed. Where exactly that leaves consciousness is not clear. It would seem that consciousness, as even Rand admitted, is limited in what it can take in and focus upon at any given time. Rand's mistake stems from her unwillingness to give up on the idea that the conscious mind could be (and must be) ultimately responsible for everything (or nearly everything) that happens in the mind, and that functions delegated to the "subconscious" mind must needs be "properly" programmed by the conscious mind. The mind just does not, nor can it ever, work that way. The very limitations of consciousness that Rand recognizes in relation to her views about the "cognitive role concepts" (i.e., "unit-economy") are not consistent with the Objectivist ideal of consciousness being the ultimate controller of all things related to cognition and volition.

Allen Nixon said...

Great reading