Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is Rand's Influence in Decline?

Daniel Barnes has pointed out to me that Rand's Google trends are in decline. This suggests something I have suspected for a number of years: that interest in Rand and her philosophy is waning, that people just aren't as interested in her than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. I don't necessarily say this as an opponent exulting in the decline of public interest in Objectivism. As someone who has written a book, albeit a harshly critical one, on Rand's philosophy, this trend does me little good. It simply makes my book less relevant.

So assuming that the Google trends are illustrative of a declining interest in Rand -- a decline further evinced by the fact that Rand 's followers are almost completely ignored by the mainstream media -- what is its cause? I believe there are several reasons for the Randian eclipse:

(1) When Rand first hit the scene, there were very few widely known and widely read intellectuals defending capitalism and political individualism. In America, the closest thing we had to an outspoken defender of individualism was H. L. Mencken, whose reputation was in decline. Later, in the fifties, the conservative movement began to gain steam, but most of its early proponents were dryasdust intellectuals with no more charisma than a corpse. Rand was the first outspoken superstar intellectual of the right -- and, despite her contempt for nearly everyone else on the right, she would remain the most controversial, outspoken, and uncompromising defender of economic individualism well into the eighties. But then Rush LImbaugh and Ann Coulter and others of their ilk came along. Not only were these individuals nearly as outspoken as Rand, they did not share her anti-religious fanaticism or her tendency to quarrel with anyone on the right that did not agree with her en toto. The consequence was that young conservatives looking for an outspoken defender of economic individualism no longer had to turn to Rand. Even better, these conservatives could feel they were part of the major political party that was making changes in the real world, rather than as fringe group that was crying efficaciously in the wilderness.

(2) The fact that Rand is no longer around to comment on current events has also hurt her reputation. Her followers, of course, have tried to comment for her, but no one either at ARI or at TOC has anything close to Rand's charisma. The ARI folks are feeble mediocrities who pathetically try to ape Rand but only succeed in aping her worst defects. Their TOC rivals, though less unpalatable, are little more than watered down Rand -- and who needs that?

(3) The mediocrity of Rand's orthodox followers goes well beyond their inability to bring her thought alive to current events. The fact is, by their slavish yet dismal and unintelligent adherence to the Randian credo, they have squeezed every last drop of life from the Randian philosophic corpus. ARI has mummified Objectivism. They have robbed it of whatever spark or warmth of life it once had. Say what you like for or against Rand, she really believed what she said, and her passion was genuine. Although the current crop of Objectivists, as far as I can tell, also believe what they say, it's a paper belief: there is little if any real passion behind it. It just provides a pretext for angry rants at a world that doesn't give them the respect they think they deserve. How else can one explain the cynical opportunism that exists at ARI? The people at ARI are not all that serious about spreading Rand's ideas. They just dismal bureaucrats not far removed from the villains of Atlas Shrugged. When push comes to shove, Rand's philosophy is little more than meal ticket for them.

(4) Islamic terror has created a world which is not compatible with the sort of individualism advocated by Rand. The full truth of this, of course, has not hit home yet: that will require a second major terrorist attack against America, one that features 100s of thousands of causalities. The world we are heading toward is a militarized world, where security has become more important than "individualism" or freedom. To some extent, I suspect that Rand's followers, at least on a subliminal level, understand this. Hence their desperate pleas for taking drastic action against Islam, including the use of WMDs against Islamic states in order to wipe out all Muslims from the face of the globe. At least some Objectivists understand the threat that Islamic terror poses to Randian ideology.

(5) If the West fails to find an adequate energy alternative to oil, this could also be a huge blow to Rand's reputation. Without a cheap source of energy, the industrial economy of the West could easily lapse into something far more mercantilist and even fascistic. The concomitant decline in living standards could end up giving a huge boost to social conservatism and the religious ideals it espouses.

—Greg Nyquist

Slow Post Weeks

I've been a little tied up of late, but a couple of new pieces will be up soon. One will be on the suprising roots of the Objectivist ethics, the other a wrapup on TPARC.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Did Ayn Rand Understand Objectivism?

Sometimes we wonder...

Objectivists often contend that Ayn Rand's critics do not or cannot grasp her philosophy's fundamental principles like, for example, the 'law of identity'. Thus they are simply unable to comprehend the epochal innovations in the fields of epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and so forth that follow inexorably as a result of Rand's application of these principles. Rand, it is also alleged, wrote clearly and precisely, so if you can't understand them you must be either a)stupid or b)evading or c)both. And perhaps this is the case.

But how good is Rand with these fundamentals herself, even at the level she considers her greatest innovation, in epistemology? Let's take a look. First, we'll invoke her fundamental axiom "Existence exists". We'll call this her Parmenidian axiom, as she derives from it a second postulate which is "Non-existence does not exist", or "there is no such thing as nothing". This seems to leave us with the ancient idea from Parmenides that the existence is "full", with no gaps of "nothing" in its structure. Then we'll take another fundamental axiom: that is, the Law of Identity which can be put as follows: "for a thing to exist, it must have an identity". This we'll call her Aristotelian axiom, as this is to whom it is generally attributed.

We'll then apply these axioms to what Rand considered her most vitally important intellectual work, her theory of Concept Formation in the "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology".

In Chapter 1, 'Cognition and Measurement', she lays out her theory, starting with the "building block of man's knowledge", the concept "existent". This is what she calls an implicit concept - as opposed to later explicit concepts and which, we presume, are so named because Rand says they require language to be properly formed.

The "implicit" concept "existent" resides even at the level of sensations: for Rand tells us that "A sensation is a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments." Of course alert readers will have spotted right away that Rand seems to have blithely violated her Parmenidian axiom, as of course there is no such thing as "nothing" to be 'distinguished' from 'something' in the first place! So her theory is off to a highly questionable start.

Things get substantially worse however as she moves to describe how this 'building block' develops. She describes 3 distinct stages. Stage 1 is the child's awareness of objects, of things, which "represents the (implicit) concept 'entity'" (ITOE, 6). Stage 2 is the "second, and closely allied stage" which is "awareness of specific, particular things which (the child) can recognise and distinguish from the rest of his perceptual field". This stage, Rand tells us, is the implicit concept "identity". Now, alert readers will no doubt have noticed that once again, Rand has forgotten her own fundamental axiom, this time the Law of Identity. For if this law is correct, and an entity without identity cannot exist, there can be no Stage 1. (1)

Stage 2 is clearly just the Law of Identity all over again, so Rand can hardly take credit for this. Stage 3, the final stage, gives us the concept "unit" and consists apparently of "grasping similarities and differences" between identities. But we seem to have already done this in Stage 2, for we are already recognising and distinguishing "specific" things in our perceptual field - and in order to do this, we will surely have to realise that these things are similar to and different from each other. So we can assume there is no Stage 3 either.

Thus, embarrassingly, the very "building block" of Rand's proudest intellectual achievement kicks off with obvious violations of two of her own cherished fundamental axioms, and a redundant restatement of one of them. All that remains of her theory so far is just the Law of Identity (ie:Stage 2), an already well-known logical rule. And of course if you state that a rule is the basis of your system, and violate it at the same time, it tends to indicate you don't understand it in the first place.

1. I do not think attempts to argue that Rand might perhaps be speaking 'epistemologically' instead of 'metaphysically' (as Objectivists call it) succeed, as of course human knowledge is subject to the LOI just like anything else.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's the problem?

In the 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology' Ayn Rand contends that the famous 'problem of universals' is the great question that has lead to today's corrupt anti-reason philosophies, and that unless it is solved civilisation is toast.

But does she know what she's talking about?

Here's 3 issues that immediately stand out:

1) Is this such a potentially apocalyptic problem as she makes out? Nyquist argues persuasively that the claim that civilisation hangs in the balance is absurdly exaggerated.
2) It is not clear that Rand solved, or even really understood the problem of universals - which can be put simply as "how can different things still be similar?" For while admittedly the ITOE is anything but a coherent or systematic presentation, from what can be made out her ideas like "Conceptual Common Denominator" simply beg the question.
3) If universals are the problem, what has this got to do with Rand's obsession with Kant? Kant was replying to a very different problem: Hume's "problem of induction", which is a far more likely candidate for influencing the state of modern philosophy. Of course, Rand admits that she has not solved the problem of induction (on page 304 or 5 of the ITOE, from memory), and unintentionally also reveals she doesn't get this one either, as she says that one day some 'scientist' will solve it. But the problem of induction is not scientific; it is a logical problem.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Real Deal

Till I get around to narrowing down the 5 most cringe-inducing moments in TPARC - it's what you call a target-rich environment - my Amazon review is here:

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Virtue of Sycophancy (3) - Cringe and Win!

Author and occasional Rand critic Michael Prescott recently described us as "intelligent, calm, and serious". So very true, although he did neglect to mention 'handsome'. Yet despite this, there remain things that, try as we might, defy even our best efforts to read with a straight face. Such is James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics". It's not every day we get to read a book as gloriously cracked as this one - in fact we confidently predict Valliant's vast apparatchik tome will do more to enhance Objectivism's cult-like reputation than anything her critics could come up with.

So as an ARCHNblog special competition, in the next day or so we'll be posting the 5 most cringe-inducing moments in TPARC. All you have to do is pick your favourite, and explain why in comments. Best explanation wins a free copy of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" via Amazon and courtesy of us. Bonus points for wretched verbal excess. Stay tuned.

The Virtue of Sycophancy (2)

We are not worthy! James Valliant on Ayn Rand:

"The potential impact of Rand's work is comparable only to that of a great religious or philosophical system."(217)

"Rand's own mind cannot be cut into parts - her extraordinarily logical cognitive method was intimately tied to her passionate 'sense of life.'"(220-21)

"Rand's ignorance of the wide array of lies, however, could not survive the careful moral thinking which Rand was bringing to the matter."(255)

"But Rand's perceptiveness, as usual, goes a step deeper: she concludes that Branden's mind is not functioning in a reality-based way."(265)

"Rand certainly possessed a healthy self-esteem...But Rand also made allowance for a whole range of other values and options just as objective as passionately loving her."(268)

"Rand's advice is sincere and obviously, a powerful, if incomplete diagnosis of Branden's psychology. She may not know all the facts, but this makes her analysis all the more powerful" (282)

"Bullseye, Miss Rand."(282)

"Rand's mind is the equivalent of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging device in psychological diagnosis."(287)

"Again one must be impressed by both the honesty of Rand's sentiments and the power of her insight."(291)

Gee, now that's objectivity for you. My personal favourite so far however is:

"One wants to cry out to Rand and tell her the truth, despite the logical paradoxes involved in time travel"(271)

That qualification added no doubt, just to quell any tiny whisker of irrationality that might be suggested by the term 'time travel'. Of course, when it comes to that distinctive mix of blissful egoism and equally blissful lack of self-awareness, it is hard to go past Rand herself. After Branden breaks off with her she writes:

"I am convinced that the clearest and probably conscious fear in his mind was the fear of admitting that I was 'too much for him.'...I was too much for him - in every sense of the phrase and in a deeper sense than would apply to the type of men he despises. I want to stress this: I was and am too much for him. This is my full conviction, reached with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind..."


(Quotes from "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics:The Case Against the Brandens")

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Virtue of Sycophancy (1)

I'm midway through James Valliant's book "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics". In it Valliant seeks to polish up Rand's tarnished image and debunk Objectivism's reputation as a 'cult of personality' by blaming everything on Rand's lover and his wife, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. But the book completely backfires: the 'cult' impressions are hardly going to be dispelled by breathlessly sycophantic doorstops like this; especially when they are also as tendentious as they are fawning.

Valliant manfully tries to establish his objectivity in the introduction:
"I had no illusions that Rand could be without fault or flaw. We will see that Rand herself admitted to being mistaken about something (or someone) on more than one occasion, and even her staunchest defenders have admitted that Rand's anger could sometimes be unjust."(5)

Now I admit I am halfway through, but so far Valliant's self-restraint hasn't lasted further than that paragraph. There is nothing that Rand does wrong that Valliant does not bend over backwards to defend from every angle conceivable - plus several inconceivable ones for good measure. In contrast, there is nothing that the Brandens can do right. Apparently, if Rand cheats on her husband Frank with Nathaniel, that's because she and Frank are intellectual and moral 'giants', whose revolutionary ethical system is obviously far too advanced for the mediocre and irrational society they found themselves living in. On the other hand, if Branden cheats on Rand with his bit of crumpet, that's because he has 'the soul of a rapist'!

You really can't make this sort of thing up. Anyway, if I come across any examples where Rand does something wrong - no matter how trivial - and Valliant doesn't mount a weirdly elaborate defence of it, then I'll post it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

To Think Or Not To Think?

From ARCHN, Chapter 1,'Theory Of Human Nature:

...According to Objectivism, man's capacity to choose stems from a "primary choice" which, because it presupposes "all other choices and is itself irreducible," cannot "be explained by anything more fundamental"(1991, 57). What is this "primary choice" ? Leonard Peikoff describes it as "the choice to focus one's consciousness.""Until a man is in focus" Peikoff goes on to explain, "his mental machinery is unable to function in the human sense - to think, judge, or evaluate. The choice to 'throw the switch' is thus the root choice, on which all the others depend...By its nature, it is a first cause within a consciousness, not an effect produced by antecedent factors. It is not a product of parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment...In short it is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such 'why'. There is only the fact that a man chose: he chose the effort of consciousness, or he chose non-effort and unconsciousness. In this regard, every man at every waking moment is a prime mover."(1)

There are so many questionable statements in this passage I am not sure where to begin...(ARCHN, 13)

Nyquist's right: where do you start with stuff like this? Obviously there's its reliance on one of those handy, all-purpose Platonic/Aristotelian 'first causes' to set human consciousness in motion. Of course, appeals to mysterious 'first causes' can either be phrased as either simple expressions of our ignorance in the face of an incredibly complex problem, or more typically, as philosophic platitudes which pretend to explain, but really tell you nothing. Objectivism opts for the latter.

While I do not doubt that something like 'conscious choice' exists, and that its workings are very mysterious, the Objectivist position offers no special insight into why or how. Further, it seems to wildly overstate the range of its action. "Man, according to Objectivism, is not moved by factors outside of his control. He is a volitional being, who functions freely." Peikoff writes. This is a typical overstatement. Of course we are moved by factors outside of our control every moment. Further, if we have been making 'integrations' since our every waking moment we have had no choice but to be 'moved' by vastly important 'factors outside of our control'. For example, the language we are brought up to speak, the culture we are embedded in, the psychological and genetic traits we learn and inherit from our families. Because they are so deeply embedded, these influences become very difficult to even see objectively, let alone cheerfully program, deprogram and reprogram at will. A simple example is an accent. No-one even notices their own accent; it only becomes evident when contrasted with other people with different ones. And consider how difficult it is to change your accent, how much immense effort would be required to eliminate it fully and permanently. And this is something relatively trivial, without anything like the depth and complexity of changing say a psychological disposition.

Needless to say, with their lack of what Nyquist calls 'empirical responsibility' Peikoff and Rand don't seriously consider - or even suggest - basic counterexamples to their arguments. Peikoff argues that the choice 'to think or not to think' cannot be influenced by anything external:not "parents or teachers, anatomy or conditioning, hereditry or environment." What, not even by reading "Atlas Shrugged"?! Think about it: this means that the person makes the decision 'to think' based on nothing but the indefinable workings of their own mysterious 'selves'.

Obviously there is much hairsplitting that can be done over the word 'think', but seems clear enough what Peikoff means: to focus your mind, to expend effort thinking. And it is true that we often walk through the world in a bit of a dream, not really paying full attention, not really 'using our heads' as the saying goes. Yet it is also quite obvious that in reality, people can be taught by other people to think; they can be trained to focus their attention, to think logically, to judge, to evaluate; and they can personally discover the rewards of this, even if they are reluctant students at first. They can be brought up in households where debate is encouraged, in families, societies and environments which are stimulating and in intellectual traditions that are challenging rather than dogmatic. Physically, they can be properly nourished, and genetically may have more intellectual temperaments. Surely this will result in more 'thinkers' than the opposite situations? Yet according to Peikoff, these factors should make absolutely no difference - we should get exactly the same amount of 'thinkers' regardless. If Peikoff is right, we should find just as many intellectually able kids neglected in a Romanian orphanange as in a typical Western school. But this is hardly the case.

So Peikoff gives us what is really an absurd exaggeration of the situation, and once again illustrates the danger - and laziness - of relying on antique pedantry like 'first causes' and not testing your rationalisations against reality. Appeals to 'first causes' tells us about as much about human consciousness as they do in physics; that is, nothing.

1. "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand", 50-60

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Absent-Minded Professor

Fred Seddon misses the point of both Greg Nyquist and Ayn Rand.

In his ‘Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature’ Greg Nyquist noted the lack of serious criticism of the novelist Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism. His book, which is self-published, begins to remedy the situation with the most thorough, accessible and vigorous dissection of Rand yet. However, judging by Fred Seddon’s review (1) in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, taking Rand seriously is no guarantee that Randians will return the favour.

Seddon is a professional academic and a somewhat controversial figure within Objectivism, largely due to his courageous, if somewhat oblique, defence of Immanuel Kant, who is a cartoon philosophic hate-figure to Ayn Rand’s followers. Given his modest iconoclasm and JARS mission to bring Rand to the wider academic world one might have hoped for a suitably engaged response to Nyquist’s book. However, the result is lost opportunity as Seddon is clearly not up to the job. He claims the book has a ‘narcotic quality’ on him; but not, I fear, in a good way. It turns out his review is so airheaded if you read it on a plane you could safely switch the engines off.

Seddon’s ineptness is evident from the beginning. He seems to be literally unable to understand the simplest thing Nyquist writes. For example, Seddon quotes Nyquist calling Rand ‘an important and perhaps even a great thinker’ but says that the book leaves him with the opposite impression. After all, Nyquist criticizes her views on everything from epistemology to art, from morality and politics to science and history. “How much remains”, puzzles Seddon, “for her to be a great thinker about?”

But Nyquist is crystal clear about what he means by ‘great thinker’ – all that is required is to read the relevant passage:
”For even though (Rand’s) philosophy is riddled with non-sequiturs, over generalizations, incompetent formulations,pseudo-empirical references, and other palpable bunglings, this does not mean that she cannot in fact be regarded as a great philosopher. Many a philosopher considered great by the denizens of academia is every bit, if not more culpable of the sort of violations of logic and evidence which characterize Rand and her disciples”. (ARCHN, xiv)
Nyquist then offers Plato, Plotinus, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel among others as examples of thinkers generally regarded as ‘great’ despite their manifold errors. Simple enough even for a professor of philosophy one would have thought, but somehow Nyquist’s meaning has escaped Seddon. This is especially odd, as this passage occurs immediately following the sentence Seddon quotes. How has he managed to miss it? Perhaps the ‘narcotic quality’ Nyquist’s writing has on the professor caused him, Grandpa Simpson-like, to nod off now and again.

Unfortunately, this is only to be the first of many narcoleptic moments. Seddon is no less obtuse in his critique of Nyquist’s methodology:
“(Nyquist) tells us that he does not have access to Rand’s mind and so he will ‘judge her entirely by her writings.’ But he immediately begins to focus on her intentions…and constantly tells us what she is consciously thinking as well as her subconscious motives.”
But the quoted snippet from Nyquist - ‘judge her entirely by her writings’ - simply does not mean what Seddon thinks it does ie: that Nyquist is ruling Rand’s intentions out-of-bounds for discussion. In fact, Nyquist means quite the opposite. Again, all one needs to do is read the passage in question to see that, far from sidelining Rand’s intentions and motives, Nyquist is indeed focusing on them, and using her writings to establish what they are.
“Now obviously I have no direct access to Rand’s mind. I have to judge her entirely by her writings – which is not always easy. In my opinion, the best way of circumventing some of the difficulties involved in interpreting Rand is to begin by focusing on her intentions as a philosopher. (emphasis DB) Her intentions are at least perfectly comprehensible – something not always the case with her philosophical doctrines, which are often riddled with non-sequiturs and palpable distortions of reality.”(ARCHN, xxix)
Again, simple enough – and again, Nyquist’s meaning is perfectly evident from reading the very next sentence to the one Seddon cites. Yet somehow Seddon contrives to get it completely backwards.

This is bad enough; but worse, it does not appear to have dawned on our absent-minded professor that the entire book is premised on the stated intention of Rand’s philosophy – that is, “the projection of an ideal man.” This is the central argument of Nyquist’s book after all, hammered home from Chapter 1 onwards – that Rand’s ‘ideal man’ is a rationalization that bears no relationship to the empirical reality of human nature; and as a result, Nyquist argues, the philosophy behind this ‘ideal’, Objectivism, despite all its claims to the contrary, becomes simply another variation of rationalism. Understanding Rand’s intentions is the key to the book, yet Seddon has not grasped this remarkably obvious point. Tellingly, while this yawning gap between Rand’s theories and actual human beings forms the central platform for “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”’s argument (perhaps the title might have given him a hint?), Seddon does not refer it even once in his review - a quite remarkable feat of missing the point. One suspects if Seddon was reviewing “Anna Karenina” he would think it about the lack of safety precautions in 19th century Russian railway stations.

Perhaps Seddon would have better luck getting ARCHN’s arguments if he spent less of his time in engrossed in trivia. His opening salvo is an extended discussion on the riveting topic of…wait for it…Nyquist’s section headings. I kid you not. Unfortunately even when Seddon does stumble across a reasonable technical point, he can’t seem to make it stick. For example, Seddon worries that as Nyquist is not concerned with verbalism and arguing over definitions, Nyquist might end up using one definition of a term, and Rand another. “Won’t they be talking at cross-purposes?” he frets. Well, maybe. But having voiced this concern, he can only find one possible example of this happening in the entire book – in the discussion of the “self-evident”, which Nyquist refers to as “those things which the self has first-hand experience of” and Rand refers to as that which must be accepted, even to be denied. While he claims that this is Nyquist beating a strawman, Seddon neglects to tell us exactly why this is such an egregious misrepresentation. Are Rand’s inescapable ‘self-evident’ concepts such as ‘existence’ and ‘consciousness’ not things which, in Objectivism, one has first-hand experience of? And if in fact they are compatible with Nyquist’s definition – and it appears at first blush they are - how would this then vitiate Nyquist’s criticisms? In other words, Seddon’s point is…? One suspects he really doesn’t have one.

And so on in an increasingly hapless vein. He seizes upon Nyquist’s demonstration that Rand uses vague definitions to ‘prove anything’ (ARCHN, 150) she wants and shows that formally in logic there are in fact some things you can’t prove, whether the terms are vague or not. But narcolepsy has struck again – Seddon does not appear to have read the qualifying sentence that immediately follows Nyquist’s demonstration - “just about anything” (ARCHN,151, italics DB) - which shows that Nyquist was not speaking formally in the first place. So Seddon’s point is another fizzer.

Things descend into outright farce when Seddon mischaracterises Nyquist as a ‘positivist’ just because, pace Karl Popper, Nyquist mocks the empty verbalism commonly associated with the word ‘metaphysics’ and considers the best test of the ‘certainty’ of a theory to be how it stands up to the empirical facts. “If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter?” Seddon intones. “Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact?” Perhaps a better question is: has Seddon dozed off completely? It seems he has. Turning to the text, we find Nyquist spends a page and a half outlining the famous ‘problem of induction’ in ARCHN’s intro (ARCHN, xix-xx), including the standard ‘white swan’ example Seddon claims to be confused about. More embarrassing still, in chapter 3 - the very same chapter Seddon is discussing – we find nothing less than a lengthy and thoroughly approving discussion of the importance of falsifiability. (ARCHN, 171-174) – again, complete with the ‘white swan’ example. Nyquist quotes Popper:
“…no matter how many instances of white swans we might have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white” (ARCHN, 171)
and also writes:
“The best that can be said on behalf of a theory is that it has survived every attempt to refute it.” (ARCHN, 174)
Thus the answers to our bemused professor’s questions above are, clearly, “no”, and “no”. Who is Seddon trying to kid? Firstly, anyone who read the book – or even the chapter - half-attentively would realise this. Secondly, having stated the formal case against inductive ‘certainty’ at considerable length, Nyquist is again just speaking colloquially when he says “certainty” or “once and for all” or “know” or “probably” or similarly philosophically troubling phrases. As Nyquist says, again in the same chapter, "I will do everything in my power to avoid being technically excessive or abstruse..." (ARCHN, 100) And of course Popper did exactly the same thing in his own writing. Thirdly, surely Seddon knows enough about 20th Century philosophy to know that as Popper is the most famous critic of Logical Positivism, anyone who right from the outset declares himself a Popper fan is unlikely to be much of a 'positivist'. (Seddon invokes Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle; yet despite Nyquist's impressive array of intellectual sources I could find no reference to either in ARCHN)

It appears that, true to form, Seddon has simply not understood what he has read. He cites Nyquist:
“If you want to know whether causality is valid, study the empirical word of facts. Only by observing the facts can you know what they are.” (ARCHN, 195)
Seddon seems to think this passage equates ‘observation’ with ‘knowledge’ and is both ‘bad Rand’ and ‘bad Popper.’ In fact it is just bad Seddon. Nyquist is not saying, as Seddon thinks, that the only way you can develop theories (or what Popper calls ‘knowledge’) is from observing facts. This would be bad Popper indeed. He is saying – and merely reading the second sentence of the quote makes it quite obvious - that the only way to get the facts is by observing them. Hardly an interesting statement, let alone a controversial one, and certainly not a statement that anyone, especially Popper, would be ‘vituperative’ about. Seddon is clutching at straws. After all, Leonard Peikoff himself makes the exact same point as Nyquist: he writes, “Thinking, to be valid, must adhere to reality”(OPAR, 110) and claims the old Dragnet line ”Just give us the facts, ma’am” is his motto. So is Peikoff now a ‘positivist’ too? Would Seddon rate OPAR as the Tractatus all over again?

By now it is difficult to avoid the impression that Seddon has not really read, let alone engaged with, the book he is purported to be reviewing – and what few sentences he has read, he appears to have misunderstood. One charitably assumes this is merely serial incompetence, and not a deliberate attempt by Seddon to mislead his readers. Whatever the case, we can only wonder: as a professional thinker, would he accept such standards from one of his students? One can only hope not. And while I know little about JARS other than its aim of improving Objectivism’s credibility in academia, this kind of clowning can only have the reverse effect.

As such, his criticisms of ARCHN probably don’t merit further discussion. While Seddon either misstates or fails to address Nyquist’s otherwise clear and forceful arguments, he does however have a positive gift for the inane – perhaps his taking Nyquist to task for not calling Leonard Peikoff “Dr Peikoff” takes the prize here. But just when I was about to write it off as little more than an insight into the mind of the unpaid academic reviewer on deadline – surely JARS cannot have fronted up with cash for this effort – Seddon suddenly becomes interesting. But his topic is not Nyquist, but Rand – in particular Rand’s theory of ‘contextual certainty’.

Seddon starts with a discussion about whether he can be ‘certain’ there is not a naked woman in his bedroom (did I mention ‘inane’?). He defends the idea that he can achieve not just ‘certainty’ of the truth of this proposition, but an accompanying ‘proliferation of certainties’. So, clearly, as far as Seddon is concerned and contra Nyquist (and Popper), ‘certain truth’ is easy and prolific; indeed manifest. All one apparently has to do is, as Seddon does in his bedroom, simply look around. (2)

But then having come out all in favour of a manifest truth, Seddon then executes a startling 180 degree shift away from such a doctrine. “In defense of Nyquist” Seddon suddenly backpedals, “I do think that Rand is really a radical here. Her notion of certainty is one that challenges the usual definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a notion that probably goes back to Plato. This definition insists that in order to know P, P must be true. Rand, for better or worse, sees this as a variant of intrinsicism and rejects it. Therefore, and Nyquist is quite right about this, you can know P, yet P may be false.”(emphasis DB)

If this is really what Rand intended by her theory it is quite a turn-up for the books. For if Rand really rejects ‘justified true belief’ and ‘to know P, P must be true’ in favour of ‘you can know P, yet P may be false’ then she effectively has the same epistemology as Karl Popper – that all human knowledge is ultimately hypothetical and may turn out to be wrong (yes, even including this theory), and that there is no such thing as a justified ‘certainty’; not even about the existence (or otherwise) of a naked woman in one’s bedroom. If this is what she meant all along then I look forward to the coming rapprochement between Objectivism and Popper’s Critical Rationalism, given that – if we are to believe Seddon - they have the exact same fundamental epistemological basis.

But Seddon goes further than this. In a truly eyebrow-raising section he writes:
“…in the social sciences we do have more work to do after the descriptions are in. By their very nature, as the postulations of ideals, one cannot expect them to be actual. This means that they will deviate in part or in whole from what is the case. Given this, laissez-faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aim at than anything that may actually be.” (italics DB)
If he is still talking about Rand here - and presumably he is - it now seems she was arguing all along that the ideals she advocated like laissez-faire capitalism - and we can assume, her ‘ideal man’ - are not realizable in reality – that like all such abstractions, “one cannot expect them to be actual”. They are merely goals “to be aimed at”, not things “that may actually be”. This is a truly remarkable take on Rand, who furiously railed against any ‘dichotomy’ between theory and practice, against all forms of compromise, against “the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all” and insisted that “nothing but perfection will do.” Seddon is effectively saying: she didn’t really mean it.

Of course I don’t believe for a moment that Seddon is right about Rand any more than he is right about Nyquist. It seems to me that Objectivism is just another in that same long line of philosophies Seddon mentions, traceable at least back to Plato, searching for the method of obtaining ‘justified true belief”. That Rand had to settle for a transparent verbal fudge such as “contextual certainty” – indistinguishable in practice, as Nyquist ruthlessly demonstrates, from your regular, common-or-garden uncertainty - is merely proof that just like those who came before her, she did not find it. As a result what remains of her various ‘absolutes’ is, as Nyquist’s book also demonstrates, really just hopped-up rhetoric designed to fill the sizable gap between her ambitions and her achievements.

In sum, in Seddon we seem to be dealing with someone who insists on his own, let us be kind...idiosyncratic philosophic interpretations, with little or no regard to the facts. As I have shown with regard to “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”, Seddon’s criticisms are mostly based on nothing more than his own seeming inability to read plain English. With regard to Rand, while it would itself be Seddon-ish to read too much into a few sentences, I would be most interested in how the rest of the Objectivist community views what appear to be major concessions – albeit offhandedly expressed - to moderns such as Popper on key issues. And on reflection, this may be the key to it. Perhaps the man is not as incompetent as he seems. Perhaps he is simply in a difficult position, having to straddle the world of academia and the world of Objectivism, both brutally critical and both diametrically opposed. Perhaps in all his obviously facile criticisms of Nyquist’s book he hoped to reassure the Objectivist community that he was keeping the faith; simultaneously offering sotto voce key concessions to reassure academia that he could not possibly support anything as outrĂ© as ‘justified true belief.’

Whatever the case, on the basis of work of this quality Seddon will be certainly retaining his reputation as somewhat controversial. But not, I fear, in a good way.


(1) "Nyquist Contra Rand," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 361 72. The review is available online here

(2) I suppose it is worth noting, in passing, some simple refutations of the standard arguments Rand raised against the meaning of ‘certainty’ or ‘absolute certainty’ as it is commonly used. Firstly she claims that it represents ‘the standard of omniscience’ and that as man is not omniscient this is an invalid, Platonic-mystical standard that cannot be applied. But this is a poor argument for the following reasons. One, rather like we might usefully propose “absolute zero” as a hypothetical standard, despite the fact that it seems impossible we will ever actually achieve it, it is always possible by way of analogy to propose “absolute certainty” as a hypothetical standard which we also may never achieve. Two, sometimes Objectivists argue that if there is no basis for uncertainty in a particular case, no contrary evidence or fault in the logic, we can say that we are ‘certain’ in an 'absolute' sense. But in reply we can simply turn to our own experience (and the experience of mankind in general) to encounter many examples where this ‘certainty’ has failed us; where we have overlooked contrary evidence, or a fault in our logic. We are humans, and humans can err. And even in those rare cases where we have had all the facts in front of us, no particular evidence for doubt, clear definitions and a compelling logical argument, there has been the odd time we have still ended up being wrong. What we learn from these experiences is that it is perfectly reasonable to doubt such ‘certainties’ could be described in any reliable way as “absolute”. (We always hope for the best, but this is hardly the same thing). For we have all experienced the feeling of being absolutely certain that something is true. And we have all occasionally experienced the shock of discovering that this cherished belief is in fact false. There is nothing mystical or invalid about either counterargument.