Saturday, May 30, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 13

An Objectivist fairy tale. In previous posts, I have brought forth compelling evidence for the the view that neither "reason" nor abstract thought plays much of a role in politics. Leonard Peikoff's contention that “philosophy shapes a nation’s political system” must therefore be regarded as a gross exaggeration. Yet Objectivism has one more arrow in its quiver. In Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, we find the following extraordinary assertion:

As long as men remain ignorant of their basic mental process, they have no answer to the charge, leveled by mysticism and skepticism alike, that their mental content is some form of revelation or invention detached from reality. This kind of viewpoint can go into remission for a while,…however if it is not burned out of men’s souls completely by an explicit philosophical theory, it becomes the most virulent of cancers; it metastasizes to every branch of philosophy and every department of culture, as is now evident throughout the world. Then the best among men become paralyzed by doubt; while the others turn into mindless hordes that march in any irrationalist era looking for someone to rule them. [88]

In other words, the reason why people allow themselves to be directed by their sentiments and interests, rather than by “reason” and “reality,” is because they are ignorant of their basic mental processes. In particular, they are ignorant of a “full answer to the problem [of universals].” “Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge,” contended Rand, “but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.” [FTNI, 30]

So our knowledge, according to Rand, must be “validated.” We must actually know how we know. Our beliefs, our knowledge claims must have a foundation or justification. And not just any kind of justification will do. We can’t just assume that we are right, on the basis of a kind of pragmatic feeling or intuitive sense, based on experience and tradition. We must know the precise reasons why we know what we know. Nothing less will do.

What we are confronted with here is a particularly extreme and intense version of foundationalism, coupled with an equally extreme version of justificationism. All beliefs must be “validated” (which in Objectivism seems to mean: justified on the basis of “self-evident” axioms). Everything not proved is dismissed as “arbitrary”; and any protests that this demand is itself arbitrary are dismissed as the most hateful and nihilistic skepticism.

Ayn Rand is not alone in having this mania for proving impossible and unnecessary contentions. Many other philosophers throughout civilized human history (most of them, thankfully, forgotten) have been afflicted by various forms of this sickness. Charles Augustus Strong, an American philosopher (remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as the son-in-law of the great monopolist, John D. Rockerfeller), was obsessed with demonstrating how consciousness could originate within an unconscious world, and made himself unpleasant to anyone who, like his friend George Santayana, were never troubled by such trivialities. Another obscure philosopher, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, once famous for formulating the “principle of least action,” was obsessed with explaining the darker mysteries of Motion. The historian Thomas Carlyle has some trenchant criticisms to make concerning Maupertuis’ unfortunate obsession with Motion:

It is well known there have been, to the metaphysical head, difficulties almost insuperable as to How, in the System of Nature, Motion is? How, in the name of wonder, it can be; and even, Whether it is at all? Difficulties to the metaphysical head, sticking its nose into the gutter there;—not difficult to my readers and me, who can at all times walk across the room, and triumphantly get over them. But stick your nose into any gutter, entity, or object, this of Motion or another, with obstinacy,—you will easily drown, if that be your determination!

Carlyle here gets it exactly right. It is not in the least important for us to “solve” the metaphysical or epistemological difficulties presented by these so-call “problems,” whether of Maupertuis’ motion, Strong’s origin of consciousness, or Rand’s universals. Each and every one of us triumphs over the problem of motion when we go to the bathroom; we triumph over the problem of the origin of consciousness when we wake up in the morning; and we triumph over the problem of universals every time we use a general term to cover multiple instances. These problems, in short, are entirely contrived and artificial, arising out of false ideals concerning knowledge and propagated by philosophers suffering from being far too anal about trivial matters.

Yet in Rand, it is even worse. She is attempting to use the problem of universals as a kind of scapegoat to blame everything she dislikes in the world. I suppose we can give Rand credit for not choosing a race or an ethnicity or a religious culture for her scapegoat. This shows in improvement and refinement in scapegoat theorizing, just as rearing of domestic animals is an improvement and refinement on hunting wild animals. But that’s all that can be said for it. For in the end, Rand’s contention that most of the moral, political, and social problems of the world ultimately stem from the failure to solve the problem of universals is mere wishful thinking on an epic scale. It places Rand in the role of the great heroine who, in the words of Peikoff, “overturn[s] the reign of the evil and save[s] the world.” Anyone who could actually believe such a fairy tale clearly has no head for reality.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 12

Influence of sentiment on thinking In the last several “Objectivism and Politics” posts, compelling reasons have been provided for regarding most philosophical theories as mere derivations from sentiments. In this post, we are going to examine some of the scientific evidence supporting Pareto’s contention that it is not theories (i.e., derivations) but sentiments (i.e., residues) that are the primary determinant of ethical and political beliefs.

According to research in cognitive science,

most human beings earn a failing grade in elementary logic. But we’re not just frequently incompetent, we’re also willfully and skillfully illogical. When a piece of deductive reasoning leads to a conclusion we don’t like, we often rebut it with irrelevancies and sophistries of which, instead of being ashamed, we act proud. Recently, a new mortality study … reported that … the death rate among smokers was twice as high as that among nonsmokers. That night on television … a reporter was shown asking various smokers what they thought of the findings: one man sarcastically replied, “So nonsmokers don’t die, right?”—and looked immensely pleased with himself; a young woman, with equal self-satisfaction, said, “Nobody lives forever, anyway.” Such rebuttals are not at all unusual; many psychological studies have shown that smokers tend to reject logical inferences about smoking by means of various distortions and rationalizations. They may assert that the evidence is incomplete or biased, or cite the case of someone they knew who smoked heavily and lived to be ninety, or, like the man and woman on television, rebut conclusions other than the one that was actually drawn.

Similarly, most people are little influenced by the reasoning, however cogent, of campaigners, organizers, and other public persuaders. Jeanne B. Herman of the Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University has studied the reactions of people subjected to company and union arguments prior to voting on some issue, and found that few of them change their attitudes as a result of such exposure. By a variety of nonlogical cognitive techniques they “insulate” themselves from the reasoning they are exposed to unless it confirms their preexisting attitudes. To be sure, some part of every voting population changes its views in the course of a campaign, but the cause of shifts are factors such as personalities of the campaigners, changing economic conditions, threats or promises, and so on; the noble ideal of persuasion by means of the clash of ideas in the marketplace has little to do with it.

Even within the ranks of foreign-policy decision makers, rationality is the ideal but rarely the reality. The classic theory of high-level decision making views it as a process in which the theoretical rational man weighs costs against benefits and inexorably comes to the optimal decision, but many recent studies find that this is rarely the case. Political scientists Ole R. Holsti of Duke University and Alexander George of Stanford University have analyzed various examples of such decision making and found that only when a problem is trivial do foreign-policy decision makers behave rationally; far more often, such factors as stress, the complexity of the problem, and their own conflicting motives cause them to make decisions by irrational processes...

If we need any final piece of evidence that even fine minds are not so much let by logic as prone to bend logic to their own conclusions, look at the output of the United States Supreme Court…. The justices interpret the language of the Constitution in their own ways, so as to derive from it justification for their own social values. As [former] Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said to William O. Douglas, when Douglas was new to the Supreme Court, “You must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections.”

Thus there is yet another paradox about the human ability to reason deductively: those who are best at logical reasoning often use it—as the rest of us use illogic—to get where they want to go, rather than where reason would naturally lead them. [Morton Hunt, The Universe Within, 128-130]

What cognitive science has discovered in research accords with the experience of everyday life. Anyone who attempts to change people’s minds on any issue that is important to them will quickly find how difficult it is. The reason for this is quite simple: most people make up their minds based on their sentiments, and so they are impervious to logic. It is Pareto’s “residues” that are critical in determining belief and conduct, not the theories of philosophers and social thinkers, which are mere “derivations.” As Pareto himself puts it:

Theologians, metaphysicists, philosophers, theorists of politics, law, and ethics, do not ordinarily accept the order indicated [of residues being more important than derivations]. They are inclined to assign first place to derivations. What we call residues are in their eyes axioms or dogmas, and the purpose is just the conclusion of logical reasoning. But since they are not as a rule in any agreement on the derivation, they argue about it till they are blue in the face and think that they can change social conditions by proving a derivation fallacious. That is an illusion on their part. They fail to realize that their hagglings never reach the majority of men, who could not make head or tail to them anyhow, and who in fact disregard them save as articles of faith to which they assent in deference to certain residues. [Mind and Society, §1415]

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 11

Philosophy as derivation 2: Rand’s Ethics. In my last “Objectivism and Politics” post, I quoted Pareto’s devastating analysis of Kant’s famous categorical imperative. One thing that struck me as I wrote the post was how well many of Pareto’s criticisms of Kant would apply to Rand’s ethical reasonings. And so I decided, as a kind of thought experiment, to try to imagine how Pareto would have criticized Rand. Where applicable, I have tried to use Pareto’s own words, often following his exact phrases and sentences. Of course, it goes without saying that Pareto would have done a better job than I have. But it’s still rather fun to try to imagine Pareto commenting on Rand. So here goes:

Notorious is an ethical argument imagined by Rand and still admired by her disciples. It is Rand’s argument that “man’s life” is the “ultimate value,” and there are plenty of Objectivists who pretend to understand the logic behind it, though they can never make it clear to anyone who insists on remaining in touch with both logic and reality. Many followers of Rand have accepted her argument in order to retain their personal morality and yet be free of the necessity of having it depend on a personified deity. Of course, morality may be made to depend upon Jupiter, upon the God of the Christians, upon the God of Mohammed, upon the will of that most estimable demoiselle Milady Nature, or upon the “Objectivist” ethics of Rand. Whatever it is, it is all the same thing. Rand expresses the conclusion of her argument in a phrase, to wit: “Man’s life is his ultimate value, or man’s life qua man.” A customary trait in all such formulae is that they are so vague in meaning that one can get out of them anything one chooses. And for that reason it would have been a great saving of breath to say, “Act in a way pleasing to Rand and her disciples,” for “man’s life qua man” will in the end be dispensed with anyhow.

The first question that comes into one’s mind as one tries to get some definite meaning into the terms of Rand’s formula is (1) whether the phrase “man’s life” means that the individual values only his own life; or (2) whether "man’s life" refers to all human lives, irrespective of who is doing the valuing. In other words, is Peter supposed to value only his own life as the ultimate end, or is he also supposed to regard the lives of all human beings as ultimate values?

To judge by Rand’s commitment to egoism, she seems to accept the first interpretation, even going so far as to insist that a man’s “own life” is “the ethical purpose of every individual man.” Yet this violently contradicts the whole purpose of Rand’s ethics, which is to provide an “objective” morality based on “reason” (after all, it is the Objectivist ethics, not the Relativistic ethics). Something that is “objective,” like an “objective” fact, is true in the same way for anyone who grasps it. If, for example, the date of Christopher’s Columbus’ discovery of America was different for different people, this date could not be regarded as an “objective” fact, since it’s truth would be different for different people. The same analogy would appear to hold with an “objective” value: this, too, also has to be the same across the board. But if the individual’s life is only an ultimate value to himself, man’s life, in this sense, cannot be regarded as an “objective” value; for every individual would have a unique “ultimate” value (Peter’s life would be Peter’s ultimate value, Sarah’s life would be Sarah’s ultimate value, Paul’s life would be Paul’s ultimate value, but Sarah’s or Paul’s life would not be an ultimate value for Peter). How can an objective value, whether “ultimate” or otherwise, be different for every human being?

Rand’s phrase “man’s life” contains yet another ambiguity which we must attempt to resolve. The term life can, and frequently is, used in several different senses. It may mean, for example, merely “being alive” (i.e., survival); or it could refer to the period in which a person or organism has or will be alive; or it could refer to a person’s activities or fortunes or manner of existence. What sense of the word life is Rand using when she declares her ultimate value?

Rand seems, at least initially, to subscribe to the survivalist sense of life. Throughout the first portion of her essay, she discusses what is necessary for “man’s” survival. She even goes so far as to suggest that ethics is a science that tells human beings how to survive. “What are the values [man’s] survival requires?” she asks. “That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics.”

Nevertheless, after giving us “man’s life” (in the survivalist sense) as the ultimate value of her ethical system, Rand begins presenting us with other ultimate values, which come bobbing up no one knows from where: "[M]an’s survival qua man ... does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. [But wait a minute! Here Rand is qualifying what she means by man’s life. It’s not survival after all, but something else!] It does not mean the momentary physical survival [isn't all survival physical?] of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull [what about the "mindless brute" whose survival is longer than "momentary"?]. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug and surrender any values, for the sake of what is known as “survival at any price,” which may or may not last a week or a year. [What about “survival at any price” that lasts for decades?] 'Man’s survival qua man' means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice. "
As usual with ethical arguments of this sort, they end up raising more questions than they answer. To begin with, where did this “survival of a rational being” come from? Why wasn’t it mentioned earlier? And why is the survival of a rational being the only type that can qualify as an ultimate value? Why should non-rational men be excluded? Is it because only rational men can survive? If so, then rationality is merely a means to survival. So isn’t it redundant to suggest that only a rational man’s life is the ultimate value? And how is one supposed to distinguish a rational man from a non-rational one? If the non-rational one’s don’t survive, this suggests that everyone alive must be rational. Or does Rand merely mean to suggest that non-rational individuals will not live as long as the rational ones? But how does she know this? Where is her evidence?

It is rare for Rand to provide evidence for any of her assertions, and when she does, the evidence is usually vague or dubious. Human beings, she writes “cannot survive by attempting the method of animals by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of the moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. [Why does she suggest (or imply) that all looters necessarily reject “reason,” or that they seek to destroy their victims?] As evidence, I offer you any criminal or dictatorship.”

Well that certainly narrows it downl! She offers us “any” criminal or dictatorship! But in doing so, she immediately forfeits her case. For history is replete with dictators and even criminals who, despite Rand, refuse to destroy both themselves and their victims and live well beyond the range of the moment. Plenty of criminals, gangsters, autocrats, dictators have thrived to a ripe old age and prospered despite all their plunderings and assorted villainies. The aristocracies of Europe were essentially formed from sanguinary marauders. Many a great fortune, even among Rand’s favorite class of capitalists, is founded, at least in part, on some shady dealing or another, little distinguishable from outright plunder.

To complicate matters further, we soon find Rand shifting the ground of her argument once again. She tells us, without batting an eye, that “the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.” Since she earlier insisted on man’s “own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” and “man’s life” as his “ultimate value," how can happiness be seen as “man’s highest moral purpose”? What possible difference can exist between “ultimate value” and “highest moral purpose”? Such inconsistencies are not noticed, because people reason on sentiments and not by logic.

In order to get around these equivocations in Rand’s ethics, one would have to reason as follows and say, “Although man’s life qua man may be his ultimate value, please do not let yourself be deceived by such phrases as ‘man’s life’ or ‘ultimate value.’ To say ‘man’s life’ and ‘ultimate value’ is just Rand’s way of saying. In reality, man’s highest moral purpose is his own happiness, which he can best attain by trying to survive in a ‘rational’ manner—that is, by forming concepts in a ‘proper’ way and pursuing many other fine virtues that will be explained to you at the proper time and place.” That much granted, one might just as well, from the logico-experimental standpoint, do away with “man’s life qua man” altogether, for it is thrown overboard in any event. But not so from the standpoint of sentiment. The appeal to “man’s life” serves the purpose of flattering egoistic sentiments and giving the hearer or reader the satisfaction that there should be an absolute norm which is superior to captious wranglings and petty human altercations—something established by Nature and “reason”; and then that sum of sentiments whereby we vaguely sense the utility of the principle that the decisions of judges should be made with reference to such rules and not against or in favor of any given individual.

The larger point in this exercise is to demonstrate that Rand’s ethics appeals, not to logic or fact, but to sentiment. No one who is intent on fact and logic will ever be convinced by the string of equivocations and non sequiturs that passes for the Objectivist ethics. Those who are convinced by such reasonings are led astray by their own sentiments, which blind them to the glaring weaknesses in Rand’s arguments. From these considerations we can conclude that the Objectivist Ethics is a mere derivation from sentiment; and as such, must be reckoned a secondary factor behind an individual's conduct, with little power, on its own initiative, to affect the social or political order.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Valliant: Surrounded by Conspiracy!

Updating our recent chucklesome expose of James S. Valliant's obsessive self-promotional sockpuppetry on Wikipedia, he is now claiming to have evidence that one of the same people at the very heart of the evil conspiracy against Ayn Rand supposedly revealed in his very peculiar book  - Barbara Branden - is also now behind his current misfortunes at the Wikipedia. Oddly, however, Valliant is seemingly only able to reveal the evidence of this new and terrifying Branden Conspiracy secretly to his friends, who in turn seem strangely reluctant what cough up what this evidence actually is. (The ARCHNblog can only wonder if Valliant perhaps reads it out from a series of golden plates hidden inside his hat). One would think that if such conclusive evidence existed, Valliant would have immediately presented to the authorities at the Wikipedia in his defense. (There is no mention of Barbara Branden's involvement anywhere in the copious discussion at Wikipedia to date). Yet he has not done so, just as he has so far refused to front up to the Wikipedia team in person. Let's see if he ever does.

Elsewhere, Barbara Branden categorically denies Valliant's evidence-free conspiracy theories.

Take The Atlas Shrugged Pledge!

This is the ARI's latest attempt to plug Atlas's (actually largely irrelevant) message into the economic events still unfolding. Interesting because a) it could turn out to be yet another rough measure of how many Objectivists are really out there (who else would put Atlas Shrugged on their homepage) and b) We can see how many pledges Yaron Brook has got so far...;-) Right now, only 12 out of 40 requests...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Author of His Own Misfortune

Long time readers of this blog will be familiar with the strange case of James S. Valliant, former public prosecutor and author of the seriously loopy cult doorstop "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics", the more bizarre aspects of which we have already chronicled in some detail here, here, and here. Perhaps none too enamoured with our attitude to his nut-gone meisterwerk, Mr Valliant later launched a feeble attack on the ARCHNblog on a Rand-related thread over at Richard Dawkins' site, which was in turn firmly repelled. Since then we have, perhaps unsurprisingly, heard little from the fellow until while examining the recent warfare over Rand's Wikipedia entry (a story in itself) we came across discussion about the work of one Wiki contributor "IP 160". "IP 160" had made over 1300 edits in the past 6 months - and had become the single most prolific editor of the Ayn Rand entry, particularly notable for their "uncivil, rude, and disruptive" behaviour, repeated deletion of verifiable sources for the article and repeated reinsertion of references to one James S. Valliant and "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" throughout that and other Rand-related Wiki articles.

"IP 160" turned out to be IP address, which a week or so ago earned itself a 6 month ban from all Rand-related articles for numerous offences. Likewise all references to James Valliant and his work were removed from Wikipedia for being unreliable. No sooner had this Wiki ban been enacted than one "Pelagius 1" appears on the scene. "Pelagius 1" has a particular interest guessed it..."Restoring James Valliant and The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics"...

You know where we're going with this. Long time Rand-watcher, occasional ARCHNblog commenter and sometime Valliant correspondent William Scherk has now alerted the ARCHNblog team of analysts to the fact that the emails he had recently received from James Valliant just happen to have the very same IP number as the mysterious "IP 160":

Busted. Seems rather churlish to be complaining in public how crappy Rand's Wiki entry is when you're in fact that entry's most crap-tastic contributor. Surely there are but minutes till his sockpuppetry as "Pelagius 1" is similarly sprung and Valliant's credibility-o-meter is reset permanently at zero. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 10

Philosophy as derivation 1: Kant’s Ethics. In my last “Objectivism and Politics” post, I introduced Pareto’s theory of residues and derivations as an explanation for non-empirical theories. When an individual, either out of ignorance or arrogance, refuses to keep in touch with reality, his thoughts have no other guide than his own emotions, sentiments, inclinations, etc. Since the emotional element is the prime determinant in all non-empirical thinking, Pareto called this element the residues. The less important element, the resulting theory, Pareto called derivations.

Now since most of what passes for philosophy is built largely on non-empirical speculation, this means that most philosophy must be regarded as a mere derivation. If this is true, then the Objectivist contention that “Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system” must be inaccurate. How can philosophy, which, as a mere derivation, is a secondary phenomenon, shape a nation’s political system? Obviously, if Pareto is correct, the role of philosophy in shaping a nation’s politics must take a backseat to other elements, such as the congenital sentiments and interests of human beings.

What reasons do we have for thinking that Pareto is correct and Rand and her disciples wrong on this issue? There are any number of reasons for siding with Pareto on this issue, not the least of which is the empirically irresponsible nature of much that passes for philosophy. Remember, if our thoughts are not guided by facts and experience, then they almost certainly will be guided by our sentiments. And when our sentiments bring forth our thoughts, we are rationalizing.

Pareto, in his massive Mind and Society, analyzed one theory after another, demonstrating how most non-empirical theories can only be accounted for as derivations from sentiment. At one point, he discusses the ethical theories of the philosopher Rand held responsible for the worst evils of the modern age, Immanual Kant. Pareto demonstrates clearly the rationalistic, even childish character of Kant’s principle ethical theory:

Famous is the metaphysical entity imagined by Kant and still admired by many good souls. It is called the categorical imperative, and there are plenty of people who pretend to know what it is, though they can never make it clear to anyone who insists on remaining in touch with reality. Kant’s formula reconciles, as usual, the egoistic with the altruistic principle, which is here represented by “universal law,” a notion pleasantly coddling to sentiments of equality, sociality, and democracy. Many people have accepted Kant’s formula in order to retain their customary morality and yet be free of the necessity of having it dependent upon a personified deity. Of course, morality may be made to depend upon Jupiter, upon the God of the Christians, upon the God of Mohammed, upon the will of that most estimable demoiselle Milady Nature, or upon Seine Hoheit the Categorical Imperative of Kant. Whatever it is, it is all the same thing. Kant gives still another form to his phrase, to wit: “Act as if the maxim of your conduct were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature.” A customary trait in all such formulae is that they are so vague in meaning that one can get out of them anything one chooses. And for that reason it would have been a great saving of breath to say, “Act in a way pleasing to Kant or his disciples,” for “universal law” will in the end be dispensed with anyhow.

The first question that comes into one’s mind as one tries to get some definite meaning into the terms of Kant’s formula is whether (1) the “universal law” is dependent upon some condition; or (2) whether it is unrestricted by any condition of any kind. In other words, can the law be stated in either of the follow ways? 1. Every individual who has the traits M ought to act in a certain manner. 2. Every individual, regardless of his traits, ought to act in a certain matter.

If the first form of the statement be adopted, the law itself means nothing, and the problem then is to determine which traits M it is permissible to consider; for if the choice of traits is left to the person who is to observe the law, he will always find a way to select traits to allow him to do exactly as he chooses without violating the law. If he wants to justify slavery, he will say with Aristotle that some men are born to command (among them, of course, the gentlemen who is interpreting the law) and other men are born to obey. If he wants to steal, he will say that it may very well be a universal law that he who has less should take from him who has more. If he wants to kill an enemy he will say revenge can easily be a universal law; and so on.

To judge by the first application that Kant makes of his principle, he would seem to reject that interpretation. Making no distinctions between individuals, he concludes that suicide could not be a universal law of nature.

So let us look at the second interpretation (where no distinctions or limitations in individuals are recognized). Kant’s reasoning might seem able to stand after a fashion. But there is another trouble with it. Before it could stand, the whole human race would have to constitute one homogeneous mass, without the least differentiation in the functions of individuals. If distinctions are admitted, it is possible for some men to command and others to obey; but not if distinctions are not admitted, for there can be no universal law that all men should command and no one obey. A man wants to spend his life studying mathematics. If distinctions are in order, he may do so without violating the Kantian law, since it may well be a universal law that a person possessing certain traits M should spend his life studying mathematics, and that a person not possessing those traits should till the soil or otherwise employee himself. But if distinctions are not allowed, if, as in the case of the suicide, one refuses to divide individuals into classes, there can be no universal law that all men should spend their lives studying mathematics, if for no other reason, for the very good reason that they would starve… Such implications are not noticed, because people reason on sentiments and not with the facts before their eyes.

As metaphysicists habitually do, after giving what he says is to be a single principle, Kant begins filling out with other principles, which come bobbing up no one knows from where. In a third case that he considers, still another individual “finds himself possessed of certain powers of mind [Those are qualifications, conditions. Why were they not mentioned in the case of the presumptive suicide? Why was it not said in his case, “A person finds himself possessed of a certain nature whereby life for him is a painful burden and not a pleasure”?] which, with some slight culture, might render him a highly useful member of society; but he is in easy circumstances and prefers amusement to the thankless toil of cultivating his understanding and perfecting his nature.” Kant wants to know whether the latter can be a universal law. The answer is in the affirmative: … “It is impossible for any one to will that such should become a universal law of nature, or were by an instinct implanted in his system [The formula does not mention any such “instinct.”]; for he, as [an] Intelligent [being], of necessity wills all his faculties to become developed, such being given him in order that they may subserve his various and manifold ends and purposes.” Here we have a principle altogether new: that certain things are given us (no one knows by whom) for certain ends and purposes.

In order to reason in that fashion one would have to modify the terms in Kant’s formula and say: “Act only on a maxim that it would be your will at the same time to have become a universal law. However, do not let yourself be deceived by the possessive ‘your.’ To say ‘your will’ is just my way of saying. In reality it is something that must necessarily exist in a man, full account being taken of the capacities with which he is endowed, of his designs and purposes, and of many other fine things that will be explained to you at the proper time and place.” That much granted, one might just as well, from the logico-experimental standpoint, do away with “will” altogether, for it is thrown overboard in any event. But not so from the standpoint of sentiment. The appeal to “will” serves the purpose of flattering egoistic sentiments and giving the hearer or reader the satisfaction of having it reconciled with his sentiments of altruism. And other sentiments are also stirred by the maxim of “universal law”: first, a feeling of satisfaction that there should be be an absolute norm which is superior to captious wranglings and petty human altercations—something established by Nature; and then that sum of sentiments whereby we vaguely sense the utility of the principle that the decisions of judges should be made with reference to such rules and not against or in favor of any given individual…

Theologians scan the heavens for the will of God, and Kant for the will of Nature. There is no escaping such speculations, which are as alluring as they are difficult and imaginary. “As regards the natural constitution of an organized being,” says Kant, “a being, that is, that has been constituted with the view to living, it is a fundamental position in all philosophy that no means are employed except those only that are most appropriate and conducive to the end and aim proposed. [A reminiscence of the time-honored theory of final causes.] If then the final aim of nature [What on earth can that be?] in the constitution of man (i.e., a being endowed with intelligence and will) had been merely his general welfare and felicity [These are arbitrary assertions about arbitrary purposes and intentions of an arbitrary entity.], then we must hold her to have taken very bad steps indeed in selecting reason for the conduct of life.”

This whole argument develops by arbitrary assertions relating to altogether fantastic things. The only word to describe it is childish; and yet many people have accepted it and many still do, and it is therefore evident that with them it can only be a matter of sentiments that are agreeably stimulated by that sort of metaphysical poetry. [§1514-1521]

Pareto raises several important points to consider in relation to Objectivism and their view of Kant’s influence: 

  1. How can something so vague and childish lead to the totalitarian mass murder of the 20th century? Since one can read into Kant’s ethical theories anything one wants, how can it lead to anything specific?
  2. Pareto notes how Kant ethics reconcile altruistic and egoistic sentiments. Kant, therefore, is not exactly the great prophet of altruism and self-sacrifice that Objectivists make him out to be. There is an egoistic side to Kant which Rand and her disciples conveniently ignore.
  3. The absurdities in Kant's theory are so glaring that it becomes fairly obvious that its appeal must be to sentiments and not to any kind of logic or practical good sense. The acceptance, of it, therefore, assumes a previous sentiment (or collection of sentiments), in the absence of which the theory would never have been accepted. Therefore, the sentiments, the residues, are what causes people to accept Kant, rather than it being the other way around (as implied by Objectivism). 

The attempt by Rand to turn Kant into a scapegoat for most of the evil’s of the world becomes increasingly implausible once we understand that much of Kant’s philosophy (particularly his ethics) is a mere derivation which can lead to no specific conduct. Contrary to what Rand and her disciples claim, refuting Kant will not change the political order: it will have no change at all. Kant's ethics have been effectively criticized repeatedly without having the slightest impact on the course of history.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cause and Effect

Conservative writer David Frum demonstrates he understands cause and effect:
A federal bank takeover is a bad thing obviously. I wonder though if we conservatives understand clearly enough why it is a bad thing. It’s not because we are living through an enactment of the early chapters of Atlas Shrugged. It’s because the banks are collapsing.

Harry Binswanger Talks To Glenn Beck

A public appearance from the ARI's Harry Binswanger. Not that common an event. His media training (which he mentions in his latest email newsletter) seems to be better than Leonard Peikoff's.

Hat tip Neil Parille

Friday, May 15, 2009

Objectivism's "Cultural Change" Project

Objectivists often say that their project is to change the culture of the Western world (and the non-West) so it will become more accepting of Ayn Rand's philosophy. For example, the Objectivist Centre's David Kelley says that "in order to have political change you must first have cultural change, and in order to have cultural change, you must first have intellectual change." Well, this is all very easy to say, but in the 50 years since the publication of "Atlas Shrugged" how well are they doing at spreading the word? Is this "culture change" they keep talking about realistic, or is it at bottom just an excuse for Objectivism's seemingly eternal lack of progress as an ideology?

For example, one thing that's always touted is the perennial popularity of "Atlas Shrugged", which is currently going through a renewed surge due to the economic crisis. But even before the GFC, we can see it was widely read:
A Freestar Media/Zogby poll found that 8.1 percent of American adults have read the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The poll of 1,239 adults was conducted by Zogby International between October 10 and October 14, 2007 at the request of Freestar Media, LLC. Among the poll's 80 questions was "Have you ever read the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand?". The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
OK, if they're over 18 years, that's around 225,000,000 people. 8.1% of that means about 18,225,000 have read the book. Atlas Shrugged's sales in the 50-odd years since it was published seem to be about 6,500,000, so (assuming these are mostly in the US) each copy should have about 3 readers. Seems possible enough, at least in a back-of-an-envelope way, so let's grant this research could be reliable.

But the key question is: of the 18,000,000 or so Americans that have read the book, how many have become Objectivists as a result? Certainly this is unprecedented publicity for a philosophy, but how effective has Rand's magnum opus actually been in persuading people that her philosophy is the one to follow?

Of course, trying to figure this out is difficult as there are no firm numbers on the volume of self-described Objectivists out there. Furthermore, Objectivism is so schismatic that no one can agree on what being an Objectivist really entails in the first place. For example, at the furthest cultic extreme, Leonard Peikoff contends that Ayn Rand herself was the only true Objectivist, and everyone else is just a "student" of Objectivism. So it's obviously a problematic proposition.

However, we can make some reasonable assumptions. For example, we'd presume Libertarians outnumber Objectivists, mainly on the basis that unlike Objectivists, the Libertarians have enough weight to have managed to form a consistent political presence in the US. There are around 225,000 registered Libertarians in the US, so Objectivists would have to be significantly less than that. So that could give us a reasonable upper bound. And of course, whilst Libertarians are often inspired by Rand's writing, they are certainly not considered to be Objectivists.

What's the minimum then? Well, let's take the free site The Atlasphere as possible minimum. This networking site for Ayn Rand fans, which has been around for many years now, claims about 18, 774 member profiles. So if we generously assume they're all US citizens that would give us a possible bottom figure. So that would make the number of Objectivists roughly somewhere between 225,000 and 19,000. So let's put a guesstimate on it and assume that figure in the US is 100,000. That's a pretty generous assumption, I think. It's more than five times the number of self-described Objectivists on the largest, longest running free Objectivist networking site. And certainly after spending some years around Objectivist websites, one can anecdotally say that seems generous. While there are plenty of sites, they're not heavily populated in general, and when they are there's a lot of the same old, same old names cropping up. And certainly there's nothing in the attendance at Ayn Rand Institute or Atlas Society conferences or events to suggest a following much larger - if any thing, the opposite.

So that means from around 18,000,000 readers of Objectivism's definitive bestselling expression, we get 100,000 Objectivist conversions, or a conversion rate of 1:180, or roughly just over 0.5%. That is, even with very generous assumptions, 99.4% of people who have read "Atlas Shrugged" have not become Objectivists as a result.

That's the state of play after 50 years. At this rate even using what is supposed to be Objectivism's most powerful conversion tool it will take literally millennia before Objectivism becomes the "political" force Kelley seems to think is possible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 9

Residues and Derivatives “Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system,” insisted Leonard Peikoff. This view assumes that ideas, theories, ideologies—call them what you will—determine the political structure of society. While the view that politics is determined by ideas is clearly an exaggeration (since, among other reasons, it ignores the important effects of unintended consequences), it is undeniable that ideas play a role in the political farce. But what precise part do they play? Clearly, they cannot be the sole or even the primary determinants of the political order. After all, ideas are not powers: they cannot act of their own accord, but require human agency to implement them. So how does this all work? How and to what extent do ideas affect the social and political order?

This is a question that Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto spent years researching and studying. Unlike Rand and her disciples, Pareto did not attempt to reach conclusions on this matter based on feeble rationalizations grounded in over-generalized knowledge of the relevant facts. Instead, after sifting through thousands of actual theories, he came to several startling conclusions. As he explained in The Mind and Society:

Our detailed examination of one theory or another has … led to our perceiving that theories in the concrete may be divided into at least two elements, one of which is much more stable than the other. We say, accordingly, that in concrete theories, which we shall designate c, there are, besides factual data, principal elements (or parts), a substantial element (part), which we shall designate as a, and a contingent element (part), on the whole fairly variable, which we shall designate as b.

The element a directly corresponds to non-logical conduct; it is the expression of certain sentiments. The element b is the manifestation of the need of logic that the human being feels. It also partially corresponds to sentiments, to non-logical conduct, but it clothes them with logical or pseudo-logical reasonings. The element a is the principle existing in the mind of the human being; the element b is the explanation … of that principle, the inference … that he draws from it.

There is, for example, a principle, or if you prefer, a sentiment, in virtue of which certain numbers are deemed worthy of veneration: it is the chief element, a … But the human being is not satisfied with merely associating sentiments of veneration with numbers; he also wants to “explain” how that comes about, to “demonstrate” that in doing what he does he is prompted by force of logic. So the element b enters in, and we get various “explanations,” various “demonstrations,” as to why certain numbers are sacred. There is in the human being a sentiment that restrains him from discarding old beliefs all at once. That is the element a … But he feels called upon to justify, explain, demonstrate his attitude, and an element b enters in, which in one way or another saves the letter of his beliefs while altering them in substance.

The principle element in the situation, the element a, is evidently the one to which the human being is most strongly attached and which he exerts himself to justify. That element therefore is the more important to us in our quest for the social equilibrium.

But the element b, though secondary, also has its effect upon [society]. Sometimes the effect may be so insignificant as to be accounted equivalent to zero—as when the perfection of the number 6 is ascribed to its being the sum of its aliquots. But the effect may also be very considerable, as when the Inquisition burned people guilty of some slip in their theological calculations. [§798–§801]

The element a Pareto calls “residues”; the element b he calls “derivations.” The “residues” are the constant element in beliefs. Pareto, during his years of intensive research, noticed patterns in beliefs and theories that held over time. For example, he noticed that various culture-systems believed that water (and blood for that matter) could be used for “purification” from sins and other transgressions. Christians have “baptism,” pagans have “lustral water,” and many sects indulge in various purification rites involving liquids. It appears that many human beings have a vague feeling that water (or blood) somehow cleanses moral as well as material pollutants. This is the constant element, the underlying residue of purification rites involving liquids. The variable element consists of the theories (such as baptism) used to “explain” or rationalize the residue. These theories are the derivations.

Pareto’s theory of residues and derivations only applies to non-scientific or “extra-empirical” theories: that is, to theories that are non-empirical and/or non-rational.

Now let’s bring this back to the previous "Objectivism and Politics" post where I discussed some reasons Rand gave on behalf of her theory of rights. I identified in that post two types of non-logico-experimental theories (that is, theories not based on experience and experiment): the theological and the metaphysical. All such theories are derivations: they are rationalizations of sentiments, of underlying residues. As Rand’s theory of rights is clearly metaphysical (in Pareto's sense of the word), this would mean it must be classified as a derivation. Indeed, most of Rand’s philosophy is a mere derivation from various sentiments. This very fact explains some of the anomalies that the critic finds in studying Objectivism. It explains, for example, why someone like Rand, who initiates a philosophical movement which makes so much virtuous noise on behalf of logic, “reason,” rationality and reality should offer arguments for her doctrines that are so lacking in any of these elements. It is not its accord with logic or fact that makes Rand’s philosophy seem so brilliant and irrefragible to its exponents, but its accord with their sentiments. Of course, Objectivists aren’t consciously aware of this. They unwittingly mistake this accord of sentiment for an accord of logic and fact. In making this mistake, they are hardly unique, as the history of scholastic and Cartesian philosophy clearly demonstrates. In my next post, we will see how advocates of another famous ethical philosophy unwittingly suffer from the same ideological syndrome.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Is "Concept Formation" Empirically Testable?

Rand's theory of Concept Formation is fundamental to her entire philosophy - and indeed with characteristic hubris she implies that it is also fundamental to man's continued survival on earth, no less. Yet despite its supposedly epochal importance, Rand's theory is presented in her "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" as a series of mere assertions, covering a scant few vague, confusingly worded pages with almost no detectable supporting argument and, despite her constant posturing about "reality", literally zero scientific or empirical support. Equally tellingly, despite her followers' enthusiasm for proclaiming her theory's vital importance they seem to have little enthusiasm for providing any actual evidence that it works as advertised, despite having had 40 years or so now to produce some. One excuse for this is that Rand writes "philosophically", ie vaguely and confusingly. And it is true that it is hard to design empirical tests for vague and confusing theories. But with a little digging, we at the ARCHNblog might have uncovered an actually-testable proposition amongst Rand's rambling epistemological palaver, and on that basis can suggest how her theory might be tested.

Let's start with her theory in its simplest form:
"A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition",
with a "unit" being
"an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members" (ITOE, p11)
eg: Two stones are two units

So in effect two stones are observed, from which the concept "stone" is formed, and then man's distinctive "conceptual" mode of cognition is up and running regarding stones. Well, that's all very well, but thus far described the process is all mental. Unless one can mind-read there seem few observable consequences we can take from this assertion. Fortunately, after some ambiguous hinting, a dozen or so pages later Rand provides us with something a little closer to what we've been looking for:
"The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word." (ITOE, p24)

Apparently properly formed concepts are vital to the "cognitive efficacy of man's mind" (ITOE p3), so we can assume that if a word is used without a properly formed concept behind it, it won't be able to be used "efficaciously"; for example, in a sentence. As a consequence,someone who has properly formed concept should be able to use that word notably better than someone who hasn't. This provides us with a straightforward basis to test Rand's theory, so here's a couple of quick thought experiments as to how this could be done.

1) Take two young children of similar intelligence who are at an articulate age but have not observed some particular object - let's say, for example, a microscope. Then take two microscopes of identical make and model. Show the first child the first microscope, then remove it and show her the second microscope. Tell her that these are represented by the word, "microscope." Having seen two "units", the child should, according to Rand's theory, have now formed a concept and be able to use the word in a sentence to some degree. Now, do the same with the second child, except this time instead of showing her the second microscope, show her the first one again. Thus, she will have only observed one unit, not the two or more required by Rand's theory, and thus should have not correctly formed a concept. Thus her verbal performance when tested should be markedly worse than the first child.

2) Another possibility is to imagine say, a child in remote village. Let's say the village has one piano, which the child is taught to play over the years, eventually becoming very proficient, coming to understand how the parts work, how to fix it etc. Let's compare this to another child who pauses at the window of a piano shop in a busy city, where they see two different pianos briefly, before their parents hurry them on. Now, according to Rand's theory, the second child will have a properly formed concept of "piano", whereas the first won't, and should be more "cognitively efficacious" regarding pianos than the first child is.

Of course the thought of either such result actually occurring seems absurd, which seems to indicate that Rand's theory is equally absurd. Naturally this could be down to the design of my thought experiments, in which case dissenting Objectivists are welcome to make better suggestions.

Objectivism & Politics, Part 8

A digression on methodology. Vilfredo Pareto identified two types of theories: what he called “logico-experimental” theories, founded on “esperienza [meaning experience and experiment] and observation”; and non-logico-experimental theories, founded on “accord with sentiment.” While there may exist other types of theories, we will focus our attention solely on these two types in this post. Pareto clarifies the differences between them as follows:

In logico-experimental theories principles are nothing but abstract propositions summarizing the traits common to many different facts. The principles depend on the facts, not the facts on the principles. They are governed by the facts, not the facts by them. They are accepted hypothetically only so long and so far as they are in agreement with the facts; and they are rejected as soon as there is disagreement.

But scattered through non-logico-experimental theories one finds principles that are accepted a priori, independently of experience, dictating to experience. They do not depend on the facts; the facts depend on them. They govern the facts; they are not governed by them. They are accepted without regard to the facts, which must of necessity accord with the inferences deducible from the principles; and if they seem to disagree, one argument after another is tried until one is found that successfully re-establishes the accord, which can never under any circumstance fail.

Pareto goes on to note that proponents of non-logico-experimental theories “are so sure of the principles with which they start that they do not even take the trouble to inquire whether their implications are in accord with experience. Accord there must be, and experience as the subordinate cannot, must not, be allowed to talk back to its superior.” [§57-58]

Although Rand and her disciples rarely claim that their philosophy has a veto power over experience, they act as if it did. As we have noted on this blog on innumerable occasions, many of Rand’s most critical doctrines are presented without so much as a jot of relevant evidence to back them up. Rand would have us believe that human beings are the products of their premises; that “reason” is the only “valid” means to knowledge; that man's “emotional and cognitive mechanisms” are blank at birth: we are to believe all these things (and many more such things) on Rand’s say-so alone, in the absence of evidence, as if on faith! And yet these claims, we are told by Rand’s apologists, are founded on “reason.”

Whether founded on “reason” or no, they are clearly not founded on Pareto’s logico-experimental methodology. What, then, is the methodology Rand uses to defend her principles? Pareto suggests that there are two main non-logico-experimental methods that individuals resort to: the theological and the metaphysical. Since Rand had no use for God or theology, she opted for the metaphysical method. Santayana once described metaphysics as “an attempt to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions.” That it is a fairly apt description of Rand’s customary mode of procedure (though Rand tends to be far more moral and rhetorical than logical). Pareto further notes that metaphysical “arguments” rely “on the lack of exactness in everyday language to mask their defects in logic and carry conviction.” Also a very apt description of the typical Objectivist “argument”! Consider what Rand has to say about “man’s rights” and note the “lack of exactness” and the verbal character of the “reasoning”:

The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. [That’s all very wonderful, but what is it supposed to mean! What particularly facts or set of facts is it supposed to accord with?] Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. [What on earth is this “proper” survival, and how are we supposed to distinguish it from non-proper forms of survival?] If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. [But men have been living on earth for centuries without these rights, so why does he need them now?] If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. [If Nature forbids man to be irrational, why does man need a “right to live as a rational being”? If Nature forbids the irrational, why not simply let Nature take its course and be done with all this ineffectual patter about rights?]

This “argument,” if it can even be called such, makes no appeal to logic or fact but merely to various sentiments, which it both swathes and tickles. To the extent that any specific meaning can be teased out of it at all, it is full of absurdities. If, for example, Rand’s contention about rights having their “source” in the law of identity means that such rights can be deduced or inferred from said law, then it is easily refutable: to go from A is A to a theory of man’s rights is to commit a palpable non sequitur. Rand’s inclusion of her favorite tautology is merely a device to suggest an aura of logic without actually providing any real logic (such as a train of valid reasoning). And when later she declares that “Nature forbids the irrational,” she unwittingly undercuts the very raison d’ĂȘtre of her theory rights. Rights are formulated by men precisely because there are no other non-human forces (such as Rand’s “nature”) to regulate social interaction. If there were such forces, rights would be superfluous.

The purpose of criticizing Rand’s verbiage on rights is not to refute her theory, but merely to show the weakness of the reasons she presents in its behalf. How could someone as intelligent as Rand present such fatuous reasons for defending a theory she obviously regarded as vitally important? And why can’t her followers, who are taught to regard “rationality” as the highest virtue, perceive the logical and empirical vacuity of Rand’s various "arguments" for rights? In order to answer these questions, we must make use of Pareto’s theory of residues and derivations, which will be the focus of the next “Objectivism and Politics” post.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Limits of Logic

Let’s examine those syllogisms I presented in the last post and find out which are valid and which are not:

Syllogism A:

No Gox box when in purple socks.
Jocks is a Gox wearing purple socks.
Therefore Jocks does not now box.

Many people struggle with this syllogism, even though its logical structure is quite simple. The difficulty arises from the confusing, unfamiliar, even silly subjects of the syllogism. If presented in terms of more familiar objects, it becomes so easy that even a child can figure it out. Take, for example, the following syllogism, which has the same structure:

No cars run when they’re out of fuel.
My car is out of fuel.
Therefore my car does not now run.

Obviously, both syllogisms are valid. But as Morton Hunt notes, “if we were truly logical thinkers, we would find the first [syllogism] just as easy to evaluate as the second one.”

Syllogism B:

Those who believe in democracy believe in free speech.
Fascists do not believe in democracy.
Therefore Fascists do not believe in free speech.

Many people assume this syllogism is valid because the premises and conclusion all seem to be true. How, then, can it not be valid? Well, consider the following syllogism, which features the same structure:

Robins have feathers.
Chickens are not robins.
Therefore chickens do not have feathers.

Obviously, we confronting an invalid syllogism. The reason so many people are fooled is because they don’t use logic when they evaluate the syllogism, they use there own experience and knowledge. This is one of the critical findings of cognitive science. People don’t think logically, they think experientially, in terms of what they know.

Syllogism C:

Whatever makes for full employment is socially beneficial.
Being in a state of war tends to make for full employment.
Therefore war is socially beneficial.

Here we are confronted by a syllogism, the premises of which appear, at least superficially, as true, yet which has a conclusion that seems false. Yet the syllogism itself is valid. What gives on this one?

People tend to think this syllogism is invalid because the conclusion is wrong. They often don’t notice that the first premise is dubious, because it seems reasonable enough at first glance. What this syllogism demonstrates is the tendency for human beings to judge arguments based solely on whether they agree (or disagree) with the conclusion. Again, logic is ignored.

Syllogism D:

If it’s raining, the streets are wet.
The streets are wet.
Therefore it’s raining.

This is another syllogism that gives people great difficulty. Why? Because it exhibits a natural form of reasoning that is useful in ordinary life—so they are inclined to regard it as valid. But it isn’t valid—not logically. Even if the streets are wet, this doesn’t necessarily mean it must be raining. The streets may be wet for some other reason, such as a broken water main or a street-washing machine. To be sure, in real life, these alternative explanations aren’t very likely and can usually be ignored. That is why such reasoning, though logically invalid, often leads to correct conclusions and is used with great effectiveness in the real world.

Syllogism E:

Disease X is known to produce various symptoms, including A, B, and C.
This patient has symptoms A, B, and C.
Therefore this patient has disease X.

This is not a syllogism that was used to test logical ability in cognitive science experiments. On the contrary, it is the form of reasoning routinely used by doctors when analyzing patients. Logically, it is an invalid form of reasoning. But, as Morton Hunt notes, “it is a highly plausible way to begin a diagnosis.”

Syllogism F:

Some of the beekeepers are artists.
None of the chemists are beekeepers.
Therefore… some of the artists are not chemists.

This is the most difficult to get right (and you don’t have a 50% chance of guessing, like you do with the others). If we make the terms a little more sensible and familiar, it’s easy at least to evaluate as to its validity:

Some birds can swim.
No fish are birds.
Therefore some animals that can swim are not fish.

So what does all this prove (or at least suggest)? Namely this: that individuals rely far more on experiential and/or plausible reasoning when they judge the validity of arguments than they do on logic. And why is experiential/plausible reasoning more important than logic? Because, as Morton Hunt puts it,

logical reasoning is in large part abnormal, unnatural, and not generally applicable to everyday experience and to the problems of survival. [Logic] consists of a set of artificial rules that we can learn and can apply—indeed, must apply—in order to solve certain kinds of problems, but it is not a means by which our minds can effectively interpret the larger part of the reality around us; our natural way of reasoning, however, is just such a means…

Logic enables us to judge the validity of our own deductive reasoning, but much of the time we need to reason nondeductively—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 [i.e., experiential] 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.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Testing One's Ability to Think Logically

In The Objectivist [Feb, 1971] we find Leonard Peikoff making the following assertion about logic:
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.

This is representative of the typical idolatry with which logic is viewed by orthodox Objectivists. Before I can proceed in my attempt to prove that most political ideals are (and likely will be) based on non-rational and non-logical sources, I must once again clear up the myths about logic that flourish like so many weeds within the Objectivist garden.

On the back of Morton Hunt’s excellent account of the discoveries of cognitive science can be found the following provocative blurb:

How logical are we? Not very. How much does it matter? Less than you think. The human mind ordinarily reasons by natural processes that are illogical—but that generally lead to correct conclusions.

That, in any case, is what cognitive scientists have discovered in their researches. Since this is obviously a touchy subject for Objectivists, it might be useful to take a glimpse at how cognitive science reached its astonishing conclusion about the limits of logic.

Cognitive scientists used some of the following syllogisms to test how well people think logically. Try them yourself and see if you can figure them out:

Syllogism A:

No Gox box when in purple socks.
Jocks is a Gox wearing purple socks.
Therefore Jocks does not now box.

Syllogism B:

Those who believe in democracy believe in free speech.
Fascists do not believe in democracy.
Therefore Fascists do not believe in free speech.

Syllogism C:

Whatever makes for full employment is socially beneficial.
Being in a state of war tends to make for full employment.
Therefore war is socially beneficial.

Syllogism D:

If it’s raining, the streets are wet.
The streets are wet.
Therefore it's raining.

Syllogism E:

Disease X is known to produce various symptoms, including A, B, and C.
This patient has symptoms A, B, and C.
Therefore this patient has disease X.

Finally, we conclude with an incomplete syllogism. See if you can figure out what logically proceeds from the following two premises:

Syllogism F:

Some of the beekeepers are artists.
None of the chemists are beekeepers.

The point of these examples is to demonstrate how difficult it is to think logically. Logical reasoning is not a skill that comes easy. The human mind takes it up only with great difficulty.

If you have any doubts on this score, try to figure out the syllogisms presented above. Unless you are very well versed in logic, you will likely find it hard going. I will provide the answers in my next post and explain what can be inferred from it as to the nature and function of logic in human life.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Who Wrote This?

Roderick T Long over at The Austro-Athenian Empire asks us to guess the mystery author:

"That idea of hardships being good for character and of talent always being able to break through is an old fallacy. Talent alone is helpless today. Any success requires both talent and luck. And the “luck” has to be helped along and provided by someone. … Talent does not survive all obstacles. In fact, in the face of hardships, talent is the first one to perish; the rarest plants are usually the most fragile. Our present-day struggle for existence is the coarsest and ugliest phenomenon that has ever appeared on earth. It takes a tough skin to face it, a very tough one. Are talented people born with tough skins? Hardly. In fact, the more talent one possesses the more sensitive one is, as a rule. And if there is a more tragic figure than a sensitive, worthwhile person facing life without money – I don’t know where it can be found. …

[H]elp for young talent …. not only provides human, decent living conditions which a poor beginner could not afford anywhere else, but it provides that other great necessity of life: understanding. It makes a beginner feel that he is not, after all, an intruder with all the world laughing at him and rejecting him at very step, but that there are people who consider it worthwhile to dedicate their work to helping and encouraging him. Isn’t such an organization worthy of everyone’s support? … So many gamble on roulette, and slot machines, and horses. Why not gamble for a change on human beings and human futures?"

Answer - no surprise really! - below the fold:

Ayn Rand, in Letter to Marjorie Williams (18 June 1936); in Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 31-33.

(Hat tip to Neil Parille)