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.

The human mind finds itself confronted with innumerable particulars, many of which share one or more attributes with other particulars. So how do we group them? How do we know that this grouping of particulars belongs under one concept, while this under some other? Rand states that all this classification is done by an "active process" of "differentiation and integration." The integration, according to Objectivism, is presumably done by observing similarities of characteristics and then omitting measurements. But a great many disparate objects share similar characteristics. There are, for example, many objects that look brown to human perception: that is to say, they share the characteristic of brownness. These objects are not, however, integrated under a single concept. We don't call brown things "brownies." Why not? Curiously, Rand's answer has nothing to do with her measurement-omission theory:

The descriptive complexity of a given group of existents, the frequency of their use, and the requirements of cognition (further study) are the main reasons for the formation of new concepts. Of these reasons, the requirements of cognition, are the paramount one. The requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary grouping of existents, both in regard to isolation and to integration. They forbid the random coining of special concepts to designate any and every group of existents with any possible combination of characteristics. For example, there is no concept to designate "Beautiful blondes with blue eyes, 5' 5" tall and 24 years old." Such entitites or groupings are identified descriptively. If such a special concept existed, it would lead to senseless duplication of cognitive effort (and to conceptual chaos): everything of significance discovered about that group would apply to all young woman as well. There would be no cognitive justification for such a concept -- unless some essential characteristic were discovered, distinguishing such blondes from all other women and requiring special study, in which case a special concept would become necessary. [IOTE, 70-71]

Rand's account of the raison d'etre of concept formation smacks of sheer pragmatism. She seems to be arguing that concepts are formed on the basis of convenience. In what sense is this theory different from nominalism (or at least conceptualism)? Yes, I know, Objectivists insist that nominalism believes in the "arbitrary" grouping of existents. But which nominalists actually ascribe to that view? Without any evidence on behalf of their assertion, the Objectivist charge against nominalism is itself "arbitrary"!

If you think I am picking on Rand over a small, technical detail, think again. Consider what I quoted from IOTE in my last post: Rand there contended that the concept man refers to all "living beings who who possess the same characteristic distinguishing them from all other living species: a rational faculty—though the specific measurements of their distinguishing characteristic qua men, as well as all their other characteristics qua living beings, are different." [IOTE, 17] What is the problem with this passage? Mainly this: not all living beings regarded as men fit into Rand's description. Would Rand have regarded the mentally ill and the mentally retarded as "rational"? And if they are not rational, how can it be said that they have a "rational faculty"? Yet such individuals, despite their lack of anything remotely resembling a rational faculty, are universally regarded as men. In IOTE, Rand claims (without providing a shred of evidence) that "the overwhelming majority" of human beings form their concepts, in some degree, through loose approximations and mere imitation. [IOTE, 20-21] Are these human beings "rational"? Are they equipped with a "rational faculty"? By Rand's own admission, they provide no evidence of being equipped with such a faculty. If this is the case, by what justification are these non-rational living beings grouped under the concept man? And how come such individuals are universally regarded as men, despite Rand's claim that they are distinguished from other living beings on the basis of their "rational faculty." After all, they give no appearance or evidence of having a rational faculty. So how in fact are they distinguished from other living beings?

Objectivists sometimes resort to the "potentiality" argument. Most men may not actually be "rational" (in the Objectivist sense of the term), but they are, or so an Objectivist might claim, "potentially" rational. Why are they "potentially" rational? Because they have a "rational faculty." ("How does opium induce sleep? 'By virtue of a faculty,' namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliere." F. Neitzsche, BGE, I 11) However, even if this were true about physiologically normal human beings (and it would be a presumption, in any case), it is hardly true with the mentally retarded. Such individuals have no "rational" faculty to speak of; or at least not in the sense that Rand is talking about. The same could be said of victims of severe brain damage. No rational faculty, potential or otherwise, operates in those individuals as well. Yet all such individuals, whether possessing, in potentiality or actuality, a full blown rational faculty, are nevertheless regarded as men, as human beings, as Homo saphiens. Why are they so regarded?

The mentally retarded and the brain-damaged are regarded as men, not on account of any so-called "rational faculty," which they are sorely lacking, but because they are part of a natural kind that the mind is capable of recognizing. They exist as a member of a distinct species which can be identified biologically. Most of the members of this species have a high degree of intelligence, at least in comparison with other living creatures. But the concept of man is not formed solely or even primarily on the basis this characteristic of intelligence. Children learn to distinguish between human beings and other animals well before they know anything about rational faculties or IQ. And adults persist in the ability to distinguish between human beings and other animals even in those cases where a rational faculty is partly or entirely missing. Rand is therefore wrong about how adults distinguish men from other living beings. She is wrong because she is trapped in what is essentially a nominalist view of particular things. Her concepts refer to actual existents in reality, but they don't refer to any class of existents that has a distinct reality as a class. For Objectivism, only particulars exist. There are no universals or natural kinds. As Rand put it, "Aristotle regarded 'essence' as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological." In my next post I will attempt to explain not only the logical implications of this statement, but to criticize the position it attempts to encapsulate.

1 comment:

PrgesvWriter said...

The ongoing discussion of Rand and Epistemology is fascinating, but there is an important point on which no one has commented yet. The Objectivists' certainty fetish necessarily puts them at odds with modern physics and cognitive science. Indeed, in his book on Objectivism, Peikoff admits as much. In Chapter 1 he says Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is "highly debatable." Oh really? By anyone except Objectivists. And in Chapter 2 he says thought is a purely volitional activity. In other words there is no genetic predisposition. Or any other kind of influence outside an individual's own head. The choice to "focus" (i.e. raise one's degree of awareness) is "not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, heredity or environment." I confess I stopped reading a few pages beyond that one. Things were just getting two crazy.

BTW, there's a new novel, The Santa Claus Conspiracy, that takes on both Rand and the Tea Party, and it's a great read.