Friday, December 30, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 16

Emotions as adaptive. Emotions are not tools of cognition, according to Rand. If this is true, why do people have emotions at all? What role do they play in human nature? Perhaps this is a question that is best left to those scientists who have gone to the trouble of studying the relevant empirical data, rather than relying merely on Rand's own ex cathedra say-so. David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo provide a brief story illustrating the adaptive nature of emotions:

Consider the following example: you're walking thorugh the savannah with some of your family in search of a little breakfast. You come across a type of animal you've never seen before. It has dark brown fur with a white stripe down its spine. As you approach, it lunges at your merry band, sinking its teeth into your eldest daughter's neck and killing her. Now let's say we asked you what the probability is that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe you see would be dangerous. You'd probably say 100 percent, and that's the most rational guess you could make since the single dark-furred, white-striped animal you've encountered proved to be dangerous.

Now let's say you accidentally happen upon another one of the these creatures. This time the animal sits there peacefully, even assuming the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. Again we ask you, what is the probability that the next animal with dark brown fur and a white stripe down its spine will be dangerous. You'd probably pause. Rationally, your answer should be 50 percent, since as of this moment, one of two has proved dangerous. But your gut says something different. It's true that it is no longer reasonable to expect that all individuals of this species are dangerous, but on an intuitive level you know it's better to be safe than sorry. In your heightened emotional state, the cost of taking a longer path to avoid the brown and white critter is far less than the risk of losing another life. And in this case, your intuitive mind is right. While avoiding all animals with dark fur and white stripes would be an irrational calculation rooted in emotion (namely, fear), it is also an adaptive one.

Of course, this isn't just true in the jungle. In modern life too, listening to intuition and being more sensitive to the possibility of harm will serve you better on average than evaluating each individual situation rationally and objectively, particularly in situations that require rapid decisions for which you have incomplete information. [Out of Character, 188-189]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 15

Gratitude as social glue. In Out of Character, David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo make the following research-inspired remarks about gratitude:

It seems that just as there are benefits to being fair and trustworthy, so too are there benefits to forging relationships with those we feel we can trust. It's obvious we admire individuals ... who seem honest and who honor responsibilities. These are people we want as partners and friends.When push comes to shove, we need someone who won't sell us down the river to turn a profit. As we've said before, social relationships are a two-way street. These potential partners also need to know the same about us. They need to know that our short-term interest won't always win, that we're in it to share both the profit and the perils. there needs to be some sort of social glue that binds people together.

We believed gratitude functions as just this type of glue. When those warm feelings of gratitude well up inside us, we feel so bounded to others -- at least for the moment -- that we become focused on our collective welfare and willing ... to make sacrifices for the collective good. [166-167]

In this passage the authors of Out of Character make points which Rand and her disciples, because of their strong ideological biases, seem incapable of appreciating. Rand had noticed that there was a sinister side to altruism that had escaped all but the most hard-headed. She then proceeded to denounce all rhetoric that even so much as suggested altruism with a Savonarola-like furor. But in her moral frenzy, Rand lost sight of all the nuances that constitute the reality most of us face in everyday life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 14

Social Isolation and Compassion. Psychological research has found evidence that social isolation tends to numb a person's sense of compassion for others: one interesting study, a group of researchers led by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University found that if you made people feel socially isolated..., it would decrease their sensitivity to the plight of those around them. To demonstrate this, they created a clever (though somewhat harsh) experiment. They had participants complete a bogus personality questionnaire and then told some of them that, based on the results, they were the type of person who most likely would not be able to develop meaningful relationships later in life and thus would end up alone....

Turned out that the people led to believe that they would become socially isolated did indeed care less about [others]. Not only that, it also made them less likely to engage in any prosocial behavior in general, and even made them less sensitive to emotional and physical pain. In short, it numbed them. It seems that when the possibility of developing beneficial long-term relationships is removed, either because the person in need doesn't appear to be the type of person who is worth your efforts (i.e., is dissimilar to you) or because you have reason to believe that you are unlovable and so your efforts would be fruitless, ... your impulse to care about the suffering of others switches off. If you can't count on anyone besides yourself, you might as well live only for yourself, right? [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 147-148]

This research suggests that socially isolated individuals would be more receptive to the idea of living only for oneself. This could mean one of two things when related to Objectivism: (1) it could mean that Objectivism would appeal to social isolated individuals; and (2) that Objectivism has a built-in incentive to make people social isolated, since this will increase the chances that this individuals will accept and remain true to the Randian creed.

Let's first examine the appeal that Objectivism might have to the socially isolated. One issue that Objectivists tend to be naive about is the degree to which ideologies are, in a sense, self-selecting. That is to say, people tend to choose ideologies, not because of the acceptance of some premise or the logic of some argument, but because that ideology appeals to their needs, desires, and/or weaknesses. Generally speaking (there may be exceptions), people don't become Objectivists because they are convinced by Rand's premises or arguments; rather, there is something they find emotionally appealing in Objectivism, which leads them later to adopt a speculative allegiance to Rand's premises. Rand's philosophy strikes them as true and enlightening, despite the absence of sound argument and compelling evidence.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature 13

Gratitude and trust. Although honesty (and presumably trust) are explicit Objectivist virtues, Rand did not appear eager to put any great emphasis on a virtue which often serves as a foundation for trust. In any ethical system that presumes to be "rational," this is clearly a shortcoming, since, as psychological experiments have demonstrated, gratitude seems to stem from innate sources that are clearly in the need of rational direction. As Desteno and Valedsolo have pointed out:

...whether we are fair [to others] and pay back our debts stems more from automatic feelings than from reason. We can always justify why we don't have to pay back just yet, but we can't help feeling grateful. More important, we are wired in such a way that our gratitude can be misdirected, leading us to repay our debts to the wrong person. The danger of this, of course, is that if we're feeling grateful, we're liable to help anyone who requests it. In fact, it an be quite adaptive if it doesn't happen too often, as it encourages people to take the chance on a stranger with whom they might end up having a mutually beneficial relationship. In short, it's kind of like paying it forward, driven by emotion.

Still, this fact also makes us vulnerable to ploys of others. Think about it. When is the best time to ask someone for a favor or for money? When they're feeling grateful (even if it's to someone else). Ever wonder why sometimes those charities asking for donations stick a dollar in the envelope or give you a "gift" of stamps or stickers that you never asked for? As the results of our experiments suggest, these tactics work. So the next time you're feeling grateful and you're tempted to do someone a favor, take a minute to stop and think about whether or not the person asking you for the favor is someone who really deserves it.

That said, most of the time gratitude serves a bigger and more important function in life than just upholding quid pro quo. Gratitude doesn't only help us reap favors, acquire resources, or build wealth. It builds something that may be even more valuable over the long haul: loyalty and trust. [Out of Character, 163-164]

Although Rand may have been very concerned with how feelings of obligation might be exploited by individuals to manipulate others, her orientation is so driven by narrow ideological concerns that she misses all the important nuances of the situation. Moreover, her denial of innate propensities causes her to naively believe that most important social problems can be solved (or at least severely mitigated) by persuading individuals to accept rational premises. But since these innate propensities do in fact exist and do in fact exercise an influence on many, if not most, individuals, trying to resolve or cure them by propagating so-called "rational" premises is a waste of time. Innate propensities cannot be managed wisely if one refuses to acknowledge their existence.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature 12

Objectivist Virtues and Compassion. The six primary Objectivist virtues are: rationality, honesty, integrity, productivity, pride, and justice. What is perhaps most interesting about this list is not the virtues that are included but those that are omitted. There is nothing about compassion, kindness, empathy, consideration for others, avoidance of cruelty, charity, good manners, etiquette or any of the so-called "social" virtues. This is not to suggest that Rand was opposed to these virtues, or regarded them as vices. She regarded charity, for example, as a "minor" virtue, and she was always eager to insist that altruism could not be equated with consideration for others. However, it is clear that these social virtues are not at the center of the Objectivist ethics, but are regarded by that system as lesser virtues which, when used as a facade for altruism, can easily become vicious.

Now recent psychological research has brought to light some interesting features of human nature in relation to compassion and cruelty:

A growing body of evidence suggests that an important factor underlying whether we show someone compassion or cruelty is the person's perceived similarity to us. It should take little introspection to realize we feel the pain of those with whom we seem to share some commonalities. Countless studies have demonstrated that we not only consistently show more compassion to those we deem "like us." ...

These psychological mechanisms were at work ... for the people who came out in droves to help the victims of 9/11, Katrina, and the Haitian earthquake -- the crises shifted their focus away from all their squabbles and differences and onto their shared identity as human beings. But once the worst was over and they slipped back into their "us/them" mentality, their compassion swiftly abated. It only takes a quick glance at the headlines to see that most conflicts -- be they national, political, religious, or personal -- often come down to this very simple and automatic "like us"/"not like us" split. [Out of Character, 127-128]

Among the many things this research suggests is that there exists within most human beings innate propensities in conflict with acquired propensities. In above example, the innate propensity involves a preference for people "like us," while the acquired propensity involves the belief that we shouldn't prefer individuals who are like us to individuals who are not, and that people should be judged on the content of their character and/or their accomplishments rather than their similarity to ourselves.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 11

Innate biases against diversity. There exists in many people a desire to preserve various uniformities. Many individuals, perhaps most individuals, prefer individuals who are like themselves: who look like themselves, act like themselves, talk like themselves, and think like themselves.

A curious experiment by Jeremy Bailenson provides further evidence that this is so. The experiment, as described by Desteno and Valdesolo, went as follows:

In the weeks leading ... to the 2006 election, the researchers selected a randon sample of people all over the country to participate in a computer-based study. First, they were asked to upload a recent photograph of themselves.... Then, the week of the election, they were shown a picture of each candidate and asked to complete a questionaire asking them to indicate how they felt about the candidate on a host of measures. Now, they weren't given any other information about the candidates besides their pictures, yet they were asked to make judgments about how honest, moral, and kind the candidates appeared, as well as how the candidates made them feel, how likely they would be to vote for them, and the like. But there's a twist. Unbeknownst to the participants, the experimenters had used photoimaging software to morph participants' own photographs with the candidates' faces, using a ratio of 60 percent candidate to 40 percent participant, which was just subtle enough that the participants wouldn't be able to consciously detect the manipulation.... What was the point? Bailenson and colleagues wanted to know if making the candidates look more like the participants would be enough to change their judgments and preferences.

It was. Results showed that across the board, people had a stronger preference for the candidate whose photo was blended with theirs. No matter who the candidate was or what he stood for, the people rated the candidate whose picture had been morphed with their own as being more honest, moral, kind, and so forth --- and they indicated they would be more likely to vote for him.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 10

Pride & Hubris. The Objectivist view of pride is actually much more conventional than Rand and her disciples make it out to be. Earned pride (i.e., pride based on "objective" accomplishment) is held as a virtue; unearned pride (i.e., pretensions to pride based on no real accomplishments) is considered mere arrogance or pretention.

These views are considered daring because they stand in opposition to Christian-inspired admonitions against the "sin" of pride. But fact is that such admonitions don't really exercise much influence on the attitudes and behavior of most people, whether they profess a theoretical attachment to Christian doctrine or not. Most people are proud of their accomplishments and proud of their country, regardless of theological attachments, just as most people abhor the false pride of pretension and hubris.

Objectivists begin to lose sight of reality on this issue when it comes to two main issues: (1) detecting hubris in themselves and (2) evaluating hubris in others.

One of the long standing problems in Objectivism is a tendency to frame issues in very simple, broad abstractions, to the detriment of any and all important details. It's all very well to say that pride should be based on real accomplishments. But how does one know that a specific instance of pride is or is not based on something genunine? Often, in the situations we confront in everyday life, we're not in a position to know such a thing. And what makes it even more difficult is most people are not very good at evaluating their own accomplishments or the accomplishments of other. Experimental psychology has found that most people engage, quite unwittingly, in spin about their personal accomplishments and their own moral worth, while being overly critical (or sometimes overly uncritical) toward other. Nor is such behavior necessarily at odds with self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. As Desteno and Valdesolo explain:

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 9

Denial of Jealousy. From a naturalist point of view, it is difficult to escape the view that man is a product of an evolutionary process, and that this process plays an important part in the development of man's character. Since a species, if it is to survive, must both reproduce and care for its offspring, it is likely that the process of evolution will favor those individuals who have a strong predisposition to reproduce and bestow care upon their progeny. Hence the near universality of both sexual desire and jealousy.

In comparing Rand's view of human nature with what we find in the study of actual human beings, the astute observer can hardly fail to notice the degree to which Rand has stripped away everything she found annoying in man. In distinguishing all those elements that separated man from the animals, Rand, in effect, implicitly suggests that man is not essentially an animal. His animalistic characteristics are mere accidents. Man's essence is his "reason" and his volition. These elements supercede the natural or animalistic characteristics. Man has no "instincts" or innate predispositions, only such acquired dispositions as he imbibes from the people around him or his own thinking. Although it is unlikely that Rand would have ever (à la William Jennings Bryan) explicitly denied that man was a mammal, her philosophy, at times, seems to blissfully evade this palpable fact. Indeed, in some ways, this evasion is worse than an outright denial. Bryan, because of his belief in the myth of original sin, could at least be brought to recognize those actual characteristics which human beings share with animals. Rand, on the other hand, saw such characteristics (provided they were not merely physical) as defects acquired through evasion and lack of focus, rather than intregal aspects of a functioning animal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 8

Jealousy. Although Rand did not have much to say about jealousy, apparently it was not an emotion well regarded by the founder of Objectivism. As Rand scholar Robert Campbell put it:

The Objectivist ethics does not look favorably on jealousy. The judgments that a jealous person makes of a rival are far from being models of epistemic objectivity, and jealous feelings are regarded as a sure sign of low self-esteem. In Ayn Rand’s fiction—most memorably, in Part II, Chapter IX of Atlas Shrugged—jealousy openly expressed is not just a badge of weakness but a near-guarantee of loss or rejection.

In the context of Rand's theory of emotions, jealousy must be regarded as a product of value premises, rather than an innate predisposition triggered by specific circumstances. Did Rand present any evidence that jealousy was an acquired rather than an innate predisposition? No, of course not. Does such evidence that exists on the question tend to support Rand's view? No, it does not.

Jealousy is very commonly observed, widespread emotion. It exists in all cultures and affects nearly everyone (though some people may be more prone to it than others). Experiments show that it can easily be triggered, even people who don't regard themselves as the "jealous type."

David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo decided to test how easily jealousy can be triggered in individuals:

We orchestrated a complex social reaction that stimulated ... how jealousy naturally occurs in the real world: a relationship starts, it's threatened by a rival, and then it actually dissolves due to the rival.... Basically, the unknowing participant was being set up for the ultimate brush-off. Why would we put people through this? Because, harsh as it might sound, it is the most valid method of studying how jealousy works in everyday social interactions. [Out of Character, 85]

The initial experiment worked as follows. Carlo Valdesolo pretended to a be a participant in a psychological experiment which involved answering trivial questions. He pairs up with a female participant and immediately begins flirting with her. A little later, another female enters the room, allegedly to take part in the experiment. Carlo begins flirting with the new female "rival," until he suggests to her, "Why don't we pair up," leaving the other female participant, the true subject of the experiment, to stew in her own juices.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 7

Love. Rand's most sophisticated theory of love appears in The Romantic Manifesto:

Love is a response to values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love—with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.
Many errors and tragic disillusionments are possible in this process of emotional recognition, since a sense of life, by itself, is not a reliable cognitive guide. And if there are degrees of evil, then one of the most evil consequences of mysticism—in terms of human suffering—is the belief that love is a matter of “the heart,” not the mind, that love is an emotion independent of reason, that love is blind and impervious to the power of philosophy. Love is the expression of philosophy—of a subconscious philosophical sum—and, perhaps, no other aspect of human existence needs the conscious power of philosophy quite so desperately. When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man’s life.

Monday, September 05, 2011

American Psycho.

T-1000 level Randroid Ed Cline has always been a creepy guy, but now he seems to be having psychotic episodes. In honour of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 he composes a genocidal revenge daydream, complete with a remarkable - not to mention salivating - equation of justice with cruelty. Here's a sample:
...But what ended what might have been continued rioting and dissension in Europe and elsewhere for years by immigrant Muslims was President Bush’s most courageous act. On October 6th, without warning, one Stealth bomber took off from the Enterprise in the Mediterranean, and another from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. The first dropped a two-kiloton bomb on Mecca. The second dropped a two-kiloton bomb on Mohammad’s burial place in Medina. The Kaaba in Mecca and the Green Dome in Medina were rendered gaseous. Tens of thousands of pilgrims perished in the blasts.

More stunned than Westerners by the operation were Muslims. Their holy shrines were erased from existence in milliseconds. The expected wrath of Allah did not materialize. He had forsaken his chosen people. The sun did not rise in the West. The stars did not begin to vanish. The Five Pillars of Islam were rendered redundant, proven meaningless. The absence of supernatural retaliation and vengeful global punishment resulted in mass disorientation among Muslims, a species of trauma still being studied by top psychologists in major universities. Suicide rates among Muslims skyrocketed –suicides that did not include bombs detonated in public, but which were private affairs of family heads killing their own families before themselves.

Countless other Muslims simply ceased adhering to the faith. Once-faithful Muslims proclaimed their apostasy, preaching tearfully and angrily to sympathetic crowds about what a fraud Islam was. Women discarded their burqas and veils, and even burned them in the streets in demonstrations of freedom. Prayer rugs were turned into welcome mats or converted into scratching posts for cats. Mosques in Western nations were eventually abandoned by the dozens....

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 6

Sexual Attraction. Rand's views on sex constitute one of the most absurd doctrines in her philosophy -- so absurd, in fact, that many Objectivists ignore it:

The men who think that wealth comes from material resources and has no intellectual root or meaning, are the men who think—for the same reason—that sex is a physical capacity which functions independently of one’s mind, choice or code of values. They think that your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you just about in some such way as if iron ore transformed itself into railroad rails of its own volition. Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

While this doctrine may appear absurd in light of common experience, it is entirely consistent with Rand's general views of human psychology. If, like Rand, you believe that an individual's psychology is the product of his "choice or code of values," then of course his sex psychology must be a product of his "choice or code of values" as well. What is particularly interesting about this passage is the suggestion that desires are a product of choice. Rand had speculated that desires are a product of one's thinking (or choice) in her journal, but she generally kept a distance from that view in her public writings, opting instead to merely insist that emotions, rather than desires, are the product of value-premises. However, as Rand left no detailed account of her view of human nature, it's difficult to determine exactly what she thought, or how far she wished to extend her belief that value-premises and choice determined psychology. As usual for Rand, she opts for grand, sweeping rhetoric, mixed with scolding against unspecified dissenters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 5

Incest Avoidance. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt often confronts participants in his lab experiments with the following scenario:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on a summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. Was it okay for Mark and Julie to make love? [Out of Character, 41]

Almost everyone posed with this question answers with a resounding no. Yet when asked to explain their rationale for their answer, no logical answer can be provided. Since there are no objective consequences to this sort of incest, how can anyone, on rational grounds, possibly object to it?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 4

The Trolley Problem. Experimental psychologists are fond of posing the following moral problem to their subjects:

A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Most people resist the idea of pushing the fat man over the bridge. If, however, the problem is reworked, so that the five people can be saved (at the cost of one life) merely by flipping switch, most people accept the necessity of sacrificing one life to save five. The question experimental psychologists are eager to answer is:

...why do countless studies reveal that when confronted with the otherwise equivalent version where you have to physically knock someone off the footbridge to save five others, the vast majority ... -- a staggering 90 percent -- believe it wrong to do so? Logically, it's the same trade-off in numbers saved and killed. The answer, however, has nothing to do with logic. It's much simpler: the two situations feel different. Take a moment to think of how it would feel to wrap your hands around the flesh of another living, breathing human as he teeters perilously at the edge of a high bridge, to see the fear in that person's eyes as he struggles fruitlessly to escape your grip. Assuming you don't have psychopathic tendencies and aren't smiling right now, that pit you feel in your gut when thinking about shoving the guy, even to save five others, results from intuitive systems ... screaming: "Don't do it!" For most of us, this impulse usually wins. [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 46-47]

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hoisted From Comments: Anon69

Commenter Anon69 makes the excellent point that by evading normal standards of criticism, Objectivism is "defenseless against rationalization":
In the final exam for the introduction to logic course I took in college, we were required to compare two passages, one from Descartes and one from Hume, and argue, first, that there was no difference in epistemelogical position between the two, second, that they manifested fundamentally different approaches to knowledge, and third, to give our own reasoned judgment of the matter. That is, we were to argue both sides of a position and then draw our own conclusion. More than weighing pros and cons, it meant striking forcefully against the position that I preferred. This was new to me, and I found that the benefit of that process was that it required me to neutralize my own feelings and tendencies in formulating the counterargument, which enabled me to proceed from a more dispassionate position than I otherwise could have.

Objectivist epistemology, as given in the rough-sketch ITOE or elsewhere, has no process or technique for such a critical examination of ideas, Rand's exhortation to "check your premises" notwithstanding. Objectivism is thus defenseless against rationalization. It sees no benefit from searching cross-examination. How could Objectivist epistemology justify such things as academic peer review or adversarial courtroom proceedings? It can't. In fact it survives by isolating itself from critique. When a process to take opposing argument seriously is eschewed, truth cannot be far behind.

For a philosophy supposedly devoted to reason, Objectivism's failure in this respect is breathtaking.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 3

Moral Philosophy = Rationalization. There are convincing and powerful reasons to believe that nearly all that passes for what might be called exhortive, "normative" ethical philosophy is almost certainly rationalization. The first strong hint that this might be the case was unconvered by Hume, who persuasively demonstrated that, logically speaking, it was invalid to derive an ought conclusion from two is premises. Hume further demonstrated the psychological impossibility of generating moral ends from "reason" alone; that in the absence of some desire, sentiment, or other natural and emotive need, no moral end could arise.

The second strong hint comes from George Santayana, who, in his demolishment of Moore's ethical philosophy (as limned by Russell) , noted that all arguments for morality committed the ad hominem fallacy:

That good is not an intrinsic or primary quality, but relative and adventitious, is clearly betrayed by Mr.Russell's own way of arguing, whenever he approaches some concrete ethical question. For instance, to show that the good is not pleasure, he can avowedly do nothing but appeal "to ethical judgments with which almost every one would agree." He repeats, in effect, Plato's argument about the life of the oyster, having pleasure with no knowledge. Imagine such mindless pleasure, as intense and prolonged as you please, and would you choose it? Is it your good? Here the British reader, like the blushing Greek youth, is expected to answer instinctively, No! It is an argumentum ad hominem (and there can be no other kind of argument in ethics); but the man who gives the required answer does so not because the answer is self-evident, which it is not, but because he is the required sort of man. He is shocked at the idea of resembling an oyster. Yet changeless pleasure, without memory or reflection, without the wearisome intermixture of arbitrary images, is just what the mystic, the voluptuary, and perhaps the oyster find to be good.

The third strong hint was noticed, among others, by Pareto when, in his mammoth work investigating the relation between conduct and belief, Trattato di sociologia generale, he noticed that most moral philosophies were devoid of specific ethical content. For this reason (among others), our conduct could not be governed by a moral philosophy, since the purpose of moral philosophy is not to provide guidance (how could it when little or no specific conduct can be deduced from it?), but to coddle and flatter human sentiments. (For Pareto's analysis of Kant's ethics, see here.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 2

Pervasiveness of Rationalization in Human Thought. Studies of unconscious brain processes (sometimes called "alien subroutines") reveals a curious phenomenon: the conscious mind often seeks to rationalize what emerges from the unconscious. As David Eagleman explains:

Not only do we run alien subroutines [i.e., unconscious processes]; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our [i.e., our conscious mind's] idea.... We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

To bring the sort of fabrication to light, we need only look at another experiment with split-brain patients.... In 1978, researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left hemisphere of a split-brain patient and a picture of a snowy scene to his right hemisphere. The patient was then asked to point at cards that represented what he had just seen. His right hand pointed to a card with a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a card with a snow shovel. The experimenters asked him why he pointed to a shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language), had information only about a chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: "Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why. If you show the command "Walk" to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he's leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like "I was going to get a drink of water."

The chicken/shovel experiment led Gazzinga and LeDoux to conclude that the left hemisphere acts as an "interpreter," watching the actions and behaviors of the body and assigning a coherent narrative to these events. And the left hemisphere works this way even in normal, intact brains. Hidden programs drive actions, and the left hemisphere makes justifications. This idea of retrospective storytelling suggest that we come to know our own attitudes and emotions, at least partially, by inferring them from observations of our own behavior. As Gazzinga put it, "These findings all suggest that the interpretative mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none -- which leads it continually to make mistakes." [Incognito, 133-134]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 1

Internal Conflicts Ineradicable. Rand's vision of the rational man contained a rather odd feature: he experienced no internal conflicts.

An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions -- provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows -- or makes it a point to discover -- the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Rand Never Lost an Argument

Sam Anderson, in a review of Anne Heller's biography of Rand, notes: "Eyewitnesses say that [Rand] never lost an argument." Given the poor quality of many of Rand's actual arguments, as one finds them embalmed in her writings, this is a bit of anamoly. The written evidence, such as it is, demonstrates no very great arguing skill on Rand's part. Quite the contrary, Rand, when she deigns to offer any sort of arguments at all, produces rather poor ones, afflicted with yawning gaps and blistering equivocations. How then could a philosopher who produced such wretched arguments in print be a veritable Hercules of disputation when relying, not on her pen, but on her tongue?

There are several factors which contribue to explaining this anamoly. Rand depended on at least five such factors to provide the varnish of irrefragibility over her otherwise hollow and empirically impoverished arguments. Those factors are:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 20

Art as "fuel." For Rand, one of the primary objectives of art was to serve as a kind of spiritual sustenance or "fuel":

Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.

I suspect that this statement explains more about Rand's aesthetics than any of Rand's specific theories about art. Rand preferred art that gave her the pleasure of feeling like she was living in her own "ideal" world, populated by her own "ideal" men. While Rand appreciated some works of literature that did not serve as "fuel," she seems to have appreciated no music that fell short of her ideal and hardly any visual art.

Now while anyone may have as narrow (or as wide) aesthetic tastes as they please, in a philosopher of aesthetics, such prejudices are deeply problematic. How can a philosopher provide insights on aesthetics applicable to all (or at least most) individuals when their tastes are so confined within the narrow bounds of their own narcissistic agendas? By Rand's own account (related by Barbara Branden in Who is Ayn Rand? and The Passion of Ayn Rand), Rand was drawn to exciting tales of heroic men. The heroes of most literature simply didn't do anything for her. But the desire to find her ideal man portrayed in literature seems to have prevented Rand from developing appreciation for other virtues in literature. Worse, it inspired her with a scathing contempt for most literature and art which failed to serve as "fuel." Consider what she wrote about the three classics she despised most:

Don Quixote is a malevolent universe attack on all values as such. It belongs in the same class with two other books, which together make up the three books I hate most: Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and Madame Bovary.They all have the same theme: Man should not aspire to values. Don Quixote is usually presented as a satire on phony romanticism, but it isn't. It's a satire on all romanticism. As for its literary category, it's a precursor of naturalism (though it isn't written naturalistically). But philosophically -- if you could call it philosophy -- it is plain evil.

And by implication, anyone who admires and enjoys these three novels is also evil. Rand was not content merely to state her own likes and dislikes, however narrow and prejudiced these might have been; but she also had to attack and disparage those whose tastes differed from her own.

In going through Rand's aesthetic judgments, one can't help noticing how often Rand conflates her personal tastes with objective truth. Her "Objectivist" philosophy is really the most subjective of philosophies. It's all about her: her tastes, her emotions, her wants, her needs, all writ large in platonic letters across the heavens. The standard of truth and morality in Objectivism is not "reason" or logic or fact; it is Ayn Rand herself. What Rand said is true is true, despite what all the great thinkers and scientists said before her. What Ayn Rand said is good or evil is good or evil, regardless of whatever natural needs may exist elsewhere in the universe. This explains, perhaps more than anything else, why Objectivsm so quickly degenerated into an Ayn Rand personality cult. Since Objectivism was defined as Rand's philosophy, since she was the ultimate and final arbiter of its dogma, points of disagreement, whenever they fell within the confines of Objectivist doctrine, could only be settled in relation to what Rand might say or think about it. Hence, Beethoven has a malevolent sense of life, not because most of his admirers find him malevolent, but because Rand did. Man is born tabula rasa, not because the facts, as compiled by science, demonstrate such a thing, but because Rand said so. Kant is the most evil man in history, not because he ever did or said anything particularly despicable, but because Rand said so. Rand claimed to found her philosophy on the axiom existence exists; but it is really founded on the (implicit) axiom that equates Rand's thoughts and judgments with objective truth.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ayn Rand Gibberish of the Day.

“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion). - Ayn Rand, "Philosophical Detection", Philosophy: Who Needs It? p14
In the course of making a comment I was reminded of this typical Randian quote. I'd be interested in your views as to the quality of scholarship and argument on display here, given that she is alleged to be the greatest thinker of the past 2000 years. First of all, would Russell really disagree that the statement “Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything” includes itself? Second, Rand seems to be referring to Russell's work on the liar's paradox and the problems that can arise from self-reference; but "one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything" doesn't seem to be such a paradox - in fact it seems consistent. (A problematic version would perhaps be "One can be sure that one cannot be sure of anything.") And of course this work led to important developments in both mathematics and logic, yet Rand describes it as "gibberish". Third, does it follow that "no knowledge of any kind is possible"? Fourth, does it follow from that that "man is not conscious"? Fifth, isn't the remaining passage pretty close to gibberish itself?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 19

Photography. Ayn Rand, to the bewilderment of photographers everywhere, denies that photography is an art:

A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful -- but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art.

(If it is asked, at this point: But why, then, is a film director to be regarded as an artist? -- the answer is: It is the story that provides an abstract meaning which the film concretizes; without a story, a director is merely a pretentious photographer.) [RM, 74]

Beyond demonstrating her lack of specific knowledge about photography, this passage also shows the weakness of her theory of definitions. Much of Rand's argument against photography as art stems from her entirely arbitrary definition of art as "selective recreation." Of course, Rand would deny that her definitions are arbitrary; yet they are. Definitions merely define what people mean by the words they use. They are usually social conventions in that they arise from the attempts of many individuals to make their meanings understood by other people. There is no such thing as a right or wrong definitions: there are merely definitions excepted by most people and definitions accepted only by individuals or eccentric groups (e.g., Objectivist definitions). Generally speaking, it's best to follow standard usage in the use words; otherwise, the chances of being misunderstood will tend to increase, sometimes dramatically.

Rand wants to believe that art requires selective recreation. She tries to defend this point of view by emphasizing the importance of selecting only those concretes that are "abstract essentials." This touches upon another fallacious aspect of Rand's view definitions, words, and concepts: her essentialism. Since Rand never provided a convincing explanation of how to distinguish an "essential" from a non-essential abstraction, her essentialism merely becomes a cover for her arbitrary assertions. The essential is whatever Rand declares to be essential. Once Rand grants herself the exclusive right to determine what is essential, she can arbitrarily dismiss any type or genre of art as non-art on the grounds that it concretizes "non-essential" abstractions.

Friday, July 01, 2011

A Reading List For Open Minded Objectivists

Regular Contributor Neil Parille reaches out to Objectivists whose Rand sycophancy is not at the meter busting level

If you’ve taken ARCHNblog’s “Are You A Rand Cultist?” test and are in the 1-6 range, there might be a chance that with some good reading material that you can get a better perspective on Rand. If you are in the 7-12 range some intensive deprogramming is necessary. I would never recommend kidnapping Randroids and locking them in rooms while deprogrammers try some reverse mind control, but as a public service I’ll provide links to books and on-line material that might help unclog the minds of otherwise rational Objectivists.*

For basic critiques of Objectivism, check out this blog's eponymous Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Nyquist subjects Objectivism’s central claims to empirical enquiry. Many of Rand’s assertions about society and human nature don’t measure up. For a different take on Objectivism, check out Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, a work that critiques Rand’s epistemology from a more traditional philosophic perspective.

For Rand’s theory of concept formation, see Bryan Register’s discussion of various problems in his 2000 Journal of Rand Studies essay. For a critique of essentialism, check out Karl Popper’s “Two Kinds of Definitions.” For a defense of essentialism, read David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 18

Rand on rock music. While Rand was well known for being outspoken to the point of palpable rudeness, she could become, when she wanted to, as indirect and suggestive as the very worst of equivocators. Her assault on rock music begins with a series highly speculative, empirically impoverished remarks on what she calls "primitive" music:
The deadly monotony of primitive music -- the endless repetition of a few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull -- paralyzes cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. Such music produces a state of sensory deprivation, which -- as modern scientists are beginning to discover -- is caused by the absence or the monotony of sense stimuli....

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Night Whim-Worshipping 2.

Seeing commenter A was in the mood for something a little denser, we are happy to oblige. Update: Seemed a bit glitchy, so here's the second part.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 17

Rand on "modern music." Ayn Rand's most extended published take on "modern music" appears in her "Art and Cognition" essay. It features all the usual Randian intellectual vices: tendency toward over-generalization, vagueness, lack of specific examples, and condemnation via implicit suggestion and innuendo:

A brief word about so-called modern music: no further research or scientific discoveries are required to know with full, objective certainty that it is not music. The proof lies in the fact that music is the product of periodic vibrations -- and therefore, the introduction of nonperiodic variations (such as the sounds of street traffic or of machine gears or of coughs and sneezes), i.e., of noise, into an allegedly musical composition eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration. But a word of warning in regard to the vocabulary of the perpetrators of such "innovation" is in order: they spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and by the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music; it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain. [RM, 64]

Rand here suggests (without explicitly saying so) that one of the distinctive characteristics of "modern music" is that it lacks "nonperiodic variations" (e.g., sounds of traffic, coughing, etc.). Now the phrase "modern music," in common parlance, covers a wide range of styles, from "impressionists" such as Ravel and Debussy all the way to hard-core serialists like Boulez and Elliot Carter. Since Rand mentions no names, it's not clear whose music she is referring to as "modern." While it is true that, in the sixties and seventies, there existed a brief vogue to introduce taped noises into what were otherwise musical compositions, outside of John Cage, I don't know of any composer of any notoriety who attempted to put forward a musical composition that was made up entirely of "nonperiodic variations" (i.e., noise). This leads to another potential confusion. Is Rand suggesting that the introduction of any noise into a musical composition renders the whole composition, music and all, as "non-art"? Orchestras sometimes accompany the closing bars of Tchiakovsky's 1812 Overture with sounds of canon fire. Do these non-periodic vibrations render the 1812 Overture as non-art? Or how about a musical work that includes a narrator? Is Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf non-art? What about compositions which use "non-pitched" percussion instruments, such as bass drum, castenets, cymbals, whips and snare drums? At least half (and probably more) of the orchestral repertoire uses such percussion. Is half the orchestral repertoire made up of works which must automatically be eliminated "from the realm of art and of consideration" because of the use of instruments that produce non-periodic vibrations?

In her haste to find a pretext for calling "modern" music non-art, Rand, in her carelessness, has once again presented a hollow argument. It may be annoying and even aesthetically viscious for avant-garde composers to introduce taped sounds of machine and street noises into their musical compositions. But that, in itself, doesn't render the musical portions of such compositions any less musical. Before one denounces a given aesthetic style, one at least has to take the trouble to understand that style. Otherwise, one comes off as prejudiced rather than insightful, as an aesthetic ignoramus rather than a knowledgable critic.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Notes On Cultism in The Logical Leap: Why Anonymous Objectivists Can't Read.

In reply to this post, an Anon Rand fan writes:
I see that Daniel Barnes is still doing his dishonest blathering.

He writes: “On p26, Harriman claims that, using this unique Randian inductive method, from a single observation of paper burning in a fireplace, we can conclude that the statement "Fire burns paper" is "a universal truth".”

Other than Harriman writing "Fire burns paper" on p. 26, Barnes is a liar. Harriman uses "fire burns paper" to describe a child learning this generalization for the first time. He describes it as a “statement of a concrete observation”. He does not say it is a single instance nor present it as a universal truth or “Every S is P”. Children at that age don’t think in terms such as “some”, “every” or “all.” Eventually most children, even ones as stupid as Barnes, will learn there are exceptions, for example, paper that is water-soaked. This is such common knowledge there was no need for Harriman to say so, except to foil a dishonest critic like Barnes.
Here at the ARCHNblog we have become accustomed to being called liars, dishonest etc by boldly anonymous Randians. We are also equally accustomed to said Objectivists drying up and blowing away when challenged to provide proof of our supposed four-flushing malfeasances.

As I'm traveling and don't have the book handy, I've nonetheless googled it and found the passage I was referring to reproduced over at the Objectivist Living forum:
In utilizing concepts as his cognitive tools, [the first-level inducer] is thereby omitting the measurements of the particular causal connection he perceives. "Fire" relates the yellow-orange flames he perceives to all such, regardless of their varying measurements; the same applies to "paper" and the process of "burning." Hence the first statement of his concrete observation: "Fire burns paper." This statement is simply a conceptualization of the perceived data--which is what makes it a generalization.

Notice that when our first-level inducer identifies a perceived causal connection in words, he does not do it as a description of unique concretes, even though that is all he perceives; he at once states a universal truth.
- David Harriman, p26, The Logical Leap.
Readers can compare our Anon's claim with the actual passage themselves. But to me it's obvious not only that what Anon doesn't know about the problem of induction could be written in 6 point type over Fenway Park, but that these "New Intellectuals" seem to lack some basic reading skills.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 16

Rand's aesthetic judgments about music. We get the full sense of the subjective and arbitrary character of Rand's aesthetics when we glance at Rand's pronouncements about specific composers. These pronouncements are often so thin and baseless that it their basis in sheer egotistic prejudice should be obvious.

On Beethoven:
I'll tell you what I hear in [Beethoven's] music as [in his] philosophy of life. With regard to Beethoven, I am profoundly opposed to his music,, specifically from the sense-of-life aspect. Esthetically, I can hear that he is a great musician. I have to acknowledge the skill with which he is presenting what he is presenting. But his music has what I call a malevolent universe. It is in essence the view that man is doomed, that he has no chance, that he cannot achieve his goals, that he cannot triumph on earth -- but must struggle just the same.... It's the belief that man must struggle even though he has no chance of winning, and that he must perish heroically. That is a malevolent view of man and of the universe, and that is what I hear in practically everything Beethoven has written.
There's already been a discussion on this site about the absurdity of Rand's assertions concerning Beethoven's alleged malevolence, so there's no need to go into great detail here. In any case, since few if any admirers of Beethoven find him to be malevolent, that should be enough to settle the question. Rand is merely trying to justify her dislike of a composer that even she has to admit is a "great musician."

On Wagner:
I think Wagner, unfortunately, is enormously vulgar, so that a sense-of-life appraisal is almost irrelevent. There is a certain musical value in some of his compositions. I would not classify him as particularly great. His melodies, which are the element by which I principally judge a composer, are, are enormously lacking in originality or inventiveness. If you strip them of all their trimming, his melodies are, with rare exceptions, street-organ or circus music. What Wagner makes his reputation on is precisely the trimmings -- the technical, alleged virtuosity of his orchestrations, with a dozen leitmotifs all mixed together, amounting to nothing. It is not a profound view of life. It is the view of a manipulator, of somebody who is playing on the fringes, but does not really have much to say.

This passage proves, more than any other, that when it comes to serious music, Rand was in way over her head. Classical musicians (i.e., those who are in the best position to judge) generally regard Wagner as one of the greatest composers. They would look upon Rand's criticisms of Wagner as ignorant and deeply prejudiced. Rand's avowal that she principally judges composer by their melodies would inspire deep contempt (the most important element in serious music tends to be harmony, not melody). Her assertion that most of Wagner's melodies are "street-organ" and "circus" music would yield howls of derision. And what is this comment about Wagner's "alleged virtuousity of orchestration": since when is Rand an expert on orchestration?This is, to be entirely frank, very embarrassing stuff; and the fact that Rand seems entirely oblivious as to how foolish she is coming off only makes it that much more cringe worthy.

On Gilbert and Sullivan:
I can't stand them.... I am positively allergic to their operattas, both to the content and to the music, but particularly the music. The content is often very clever and witty, but the sense of life projected is so satirically anti-man, that there isn't a redeeming feature anywhere. It is as if Gilbert and Sullivan were laughing at everything about man. And therefore, the sound of their music makes me uncomfortable.
The odd thing here is that, even though the (alleged) "laughing at man" is entirely the product of Gilbert, that Rand objects "particularly" to Sullivan's music. If she knew nothing of Gilbert's librettos, would she still have objected to Sullivan's music?

Rand is also known to have referred to Mozart as "pre-music" and to have regarded an acquaintance who admired Richard Strauss as someone with whom she could never be "soul mates." One shudders to think what Rand would have thought of Debussy, Elgar, Mahler, and countless others of whom she was too ignorant to disparage.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 15

Rand's theory of music. Rand's views on music reveal far more about her basic modus operandi than they do about music. Her theory explaining the "nature of man's response music" is unique in with Objectivism in that Rand recognized it as being a mere hypothesis. Yet even this very recognition is fraught with difficulties. It has that character (so prominent amongst Rand's philosophy) of manifesting a heads-I-win,-tails-you-lose dynamic. For Rand's basic, default attitude toward music was: I am right, but I can't prove it. In other words, we are supposed to give her credit for acknowledging she couldn't prove her theory, yet she did not consider herself obliged to admit she might be wrong. She really does seem to be trying to have it both ways.

Given that her "hypothesis" about music appears no better or worse than any of her other theories, it is difficult to explain why she would consider it a mere hypothesis. Rand's theories of concepts and value are also mere hypotheses. Her attempts to "prove" or "validate" them are no more convincing than her hypothesis about music. So why did she recognize the hypothetical character of her theory of music while ignoring the fact that the rest of her philosophy was also hypothetical?

Oddly enough, her theory of music at least attempts to make use of scientific evidence (which cannot be said of most of her other theories). To be sure, the scientific evidence she references is very old: namely, Helmholtz's 1863 Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music),

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Notes On Cultism In the Logical Leap 3: The Stupid, It Burns!

I was expecting The Logical Leap: Induction In Physics to be really, really terrible, and I have not been disappointed. Just to get a good handle on how it serves as a dutiful cultic delivery vehicle for Rand's immaculate conceptions I've had to go back to the ITOE, and it takes a while to extract any clarity from that shambles. I'll type that up soon. But to sum up TLL, where it does not merely consist of warmed over Randian tripe, is basically an exercise in philosophic Calvinball with Harriman straining to retrofit the giants of Enlightenment science into Team Objectivism. Of course, this would be a complete intellectual embarrassment if not for the fact that such Objectivists have no shame.

As for the Harrikoffrand arguments themselves, that will have to be a separate, eyerolling post. Suffice to say for now that we might judge how good they are by the quality of their conclusions, so I now present an example of the amazing power of Objectivist "induction". On p26, Harriman claims that, using this unique Randian inductive method, from a single observation of paper burning in a fireplace, we can conclude that the statement "Fire burns paper" is "a universal truth".

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A "Necessary Connection"?

At bottom, Objectivist epistemology is based on a fundamental fallacy which leads at first to verbalism and then to an authoritarian turn. This fallacy, often difficult to unpack, is clearly expressed here (my italics):
"And, lastly, I suggest that you try to project what would have happened if, instead of Annie Sullivan, a sadist had taken charge of Helen Keller’s education. A sadist would spell “water” into Helen’s palm, while making her touch water, stones, flowers and dogs interchangeably; he would teach her that water is called “water” today, but “milk” tomorrow; he would endeavor to convey to her that there is no necessary connection between names and things, that the signals in her palm are a game of arbitrary conventions and that she’d better obey him without trying to understand."
- Ayn Rand, “Kant Versus Sullivan,” Philosophy: Who Needs It p90.
A truly remarkable thing to write, and to think.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 14

Style and "psycho-epistemology." With her over-emphasis on selectivity, her sense of life construct, and her invidious distinction between Romanticism and Naturalism, Rand has plenty of tools to criticize aesthetic tastes she didn't approve of (i.e., nearly any taste she did not share). She had yet one tool her aesthetics that she could make use of to flog art she despised: namely, style as it relates to "psycho-epistemology." According to Rand:
The subject of an art work expresses a view of man’s existence, while the style expresses a view of man’s consciousness. The subject reveals an artist’s metaphysics, the style reveals his psycho-epistemology . . . .

An artist’s style is the product of his own psycho-epistemology—and, by implication, a projection of his view of man’s consciousness, of its efficacy or impotence, of its proper method and level of functioning.

Predominantly (though not exclusively), a man whose normal mental state is a state of full focus, will create and respond to a style of radiant clarity and ruthless precision—a style that projects sharp outlines, cleanliness, purpose, an intransigent commitment to full awareness and clear-cut identity—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A is A, where everything is open to man’s consciousness and demands its constant functioning.

A man who is moved by the fog of his feelings and spends most of his time out of focus will create and respond to a style of blurred, "mysterious" murk, where outlines dissolve and entities flow into one another, where words connote anything and denote nothing, where colors float without objects, and objects float without weight—a level of awareness appropriate to a universe where A can be any non-A one chooses, where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing much is demanded of one’s consciousness.
With this weapon in her aesthetic arsenal, Rand can make some startling pronouncements about various styles of painting:

Style is the most complex element of art, the most revealing and, often, the most baffling psychologically. The terrible inner conflicts from which artists suffer as much as (or, perhaps, more than) other men are magnified in their work. As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics. A similar, but less offensive, conflict may be seen in the paintings of Vermeer, who combines a brilliant clarity of style with the bleak metaphysics of Naturalism. At the other extreme of the stylistic continuum, observe the deliberate blurring and visual distortions of the so-called "painterly" school, from Rembrandt on down—down to the rebellion against consciousness, expressed by a phenomenon such as Cubism which seeks specifically to disintegrate man’s consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them (from several perspectives at once).

Much of the psychological bafflement Rand confesses to arises out of her definition of art. It's from Rand's own insistence that art is a "selective recreation of reality" that so many of her invidious conclusions about art, particularly modern art, arise. After all, on what basis does Rand justify her conclusion that individuals who respond to "blurred mysterious murk" (presumably this is Impressionist and non-representional art) spend most of their time "out of focus." What evidence does she have to support so implausible a contention?

Art is not merely a selective recreation of reality. It is the creation of something that leads to an aesthetic experience. Nor is there any evidence that an artist's style necessarily reveals the degree to which his mind is in or out of focus. Impressionist painting was driven, in part, by the desire to paint, not in a studio, but outdoors. This encouraged painters to adopt quicker methods of composition, in which the painstaking attention to detail was replaced by bold strokes and emphasis on color. The Impressionists were generalists seeking to capture the "essentials" of a scene: just what Rand claimed to do in her philosophy; only the Impressionists had a much greater excuse than Rand, as they were merely trying to convey light and beauty, not information or philosophical truth.

I suspect that one of the main draws of Rand's aesthetics is that it provides an uncompromising condemnation of "modern" art. Such modernism, Rand implies, is a "rebellion against consciousness." Cubism, in particular, "seeks specifically to disintegrate man's consciousness by painting objects as man does not perceive them." Oh really? How does Rand know such a thing? Using the same logic, couldn't something very similar be said about emoticons and smilies? or stick figure illustrations? or any graphical representation that isn't absolutley photographic in its representation? While there is absolutely nothing wrong in deploring modern art, if one wishes to criticize it, one must do better than this.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 13

Style in literature. Rand's remarks on literary style begin rather innocuous and vague, but quickly take on more sinister connotations once she applies them as tools of criticism:

A literary style has two fundamental elements (each subsuming a large number of lesser categories): the "choice of content" and the "choice of words." By "choice of content" I mean those aspects of a given passage (whether description, narrative or dialogue) which a writer chooses to communicate (and which involve the consideration of what to include or to omit). By "choice of words" I mean the particular words and sentence structures a writer uses to communicate them.

For instance, when a writer describes a beautiful woman, his stylistic "choice of content" will determine whether he mentions (or stresses) her face or body or manner of moving or facial expression, etc.; whether the details he includes are essential and significant or accidental and irrelevant; whether he presents them in terms of facts or of evaluations; etc. His "choice of words" will convey the emotional implications or connotations, the value-slanting, of the particular content he has chosen to communicate. (He will achieve a different effect if he describes a woman as "slender" or "thin" or "svelte" or "lanky," etc.)

None of this is particularly objectionable or particularly insightful. The main criticism that could be essayed against it is that, in the hands of a malicious critic, the importance of a writer's style could be exaggerated and used as a pretext to malign great works of literature. Many of the greatest novelists were not particularly adept stylists. These include such writers as Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Melville, Dreiser, and Faulkner, among others.

Rand proceeds to trot out two passage allegedly describing New York, one written by Mickey Spillane, the other by Thomas Wolfe. I say allegedly because the Wolfe passage is not really a description of New York, but rather, a description of the emotions stirred up within Wolfe's protagonist by the sight of New York. Rand, ignoring this distinction, concludes: "Wolfe's style is emotion-orientated and addressed to a subjective psycho-epistemology: he expects the reader to accept emotions divorced from facts, and to accept them second-hand."

The key term here is "subjective psycho-epistemology." In Objectivism, the term subjective has the same moral connotations as the term Satan has for a Christian fundamentalist. It is indicative of the deepest, most unregenerate evil. By claiming that Wolfe's works are "addressed" to a "subjective psycho-epistemology," Rand is suggesting that admirers of his work are afflicted with this very same subjectivism, and are perhaps deserving of psychological counseling, if not outright moral condemnation. Does Rand have any grounds for ascribing subjectivism (in the disparaging sense of the word) to Wolfe's admirers?

No, she doesn't. Wolfe presents a target-rich environment for the critic, because he was an immensely talented writer who often, alas, had nothing of any great importance to say. The best he could achieve was to write very eloquently (sometimes over-eloquently) of his own trivial thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Since many young people share or can relate to Wolfe's thoughts, emotions, and experiences, they are drawn to the grandiloquent poetry in which he expresses them. There is nothing in any of this to draw the sinister conclusion that Wolfe appeals to those afflicted with subjective psycho-epistemologies. All literature, to the extent that it appeals to emotions (and what literature doesn't appeal to the emotions?), appeals to the "subjective."

Rand takes her principle to even more questionable extremes when she writes:

Style is not an end in itself, it is only a means to an end—the means of telling a story. The writer who develops a beautiful style, but has nothing to say, represents a kind of arrested esthetic development; he is like a pianist who acquires a brilliant technique by playing finger-exercises, but never gives a concert.

The typical literary product of such writers—and of their imitators, who possess no style—are so-called "mood-studies," popular among today’s literati, which are little pieces conveying nothing but a certain mood. Such pieces are not an art-form, they are merely finger-exercises that never develop into art.

While Rand is correct that style is not an end in itself, this doesn't mean that "mood-studies" are not an art-form. What is a lyric poem, but a "mood study"? Why shouldn't a lyric poem (or a lyrical short story) not be a work of art? We once again are confronted with an example of Rand making sweeping pronouncements about issues she doesn't know much about and hasn't thought through.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 12

Plot-theme. Rand introduces yet another poorly thought out aesthetic construct. She explains "plot-theme" as follows:
A cardinal principle of good fiction [is]: the theme and the plot of a novel must be integrated—as thoroughly integrated as mind and body or thought and action in a rational view of man.The link between the theme and the events of a novel is an element which I call the plot-theme. It is the first step of the translation of an abstract theme into a story, without which the construction of a plot would be impossible. A "plot-theme" is the central conflict or "situation" of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.
The theme of a novel is the core of its abstract meaning—the plot-theme is the core of its events. Where is the incoherency in this idea? It stems from how Rand utilizes it in her criticism of novels she doesn't like. Consider what she says about Dreiser's An American Tragedy:
A related, though somewhat different, example of a bad novel is An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Here, the author attempts to give significance to a trite story by tacking on a theme which is not related to or demonstrated by its events. The events deal with an age old subject: the romantic problem of a rotten little weakling who murders his pregnant sweetheart, a working girl, in order ... to marry a rich heiress. The alleged theme, according to the author's assertion, is: "The evil of capitalism."
Rand here commits the error of confusing the author's intended theme with the actual theme manifested in the author's story. In other words, Dreiser's alleged theme is entirely irrelevant to the merit (or lack of merit) of An American Tragedy. Even if that novel fails to demonstrate the evils of capitalism, that in itself wouldn't make it a "bad novel." The integration of theme and plot is entirely irrelevant. Every plot will have a theme, regardless of the author's intentions. Since every story has a theme, integration of theme and plot is a built in feature. It works regardless of what the author intended. Indeed, the author's intentions are of no consequence whatsoever; what is important is the final result. A novel cannot be judged because it turned out different from what the author originally intended. If Dreiser had never claimed that the theme of An American Tragedy was "The evil of capitalism," none of us would be any the wiser and Rand could not have used the work as an example of a bad novel that misintegrates the theme and the plot.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Do They Just Make This Stuff Up?

We here at the ARCHNblog have long said that Rand's arguments are so intensely confused even her devotees are unable to extract coherent positions from them. Take the case of her "intellectual heir" Leonard Peikoff. After triggering doctrinal firestorms over denying Muslims property rights, voting Democrat, and nuking Iran under the doctrine of collective responsibility, he's now come out in favour of compulsory jury duty. And what is his Objectivist argument for initiating force against free citizens, something expressly forbidden by Objectivism? Amy Peikoff summarises it simply: it is just, well, "something you agree to when you agree to live under the government."

Uh-huh. Rather like taxation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ayn Rand & Aesthetics 11

Plot and character. When asked to name the three most important elements in fiction, Rand replied, "Plot, plot, plot." For Rand, a plot "is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax" and explicated this statement as follows:
The word “purposeful” in this definition has two applications: it applies to the author and to the characters of a novel. It demands that the author devise a logical structure of events, a sequence in which every major event is connected with, determined by and proceeds from the preceding events of the story—a sequence in which nothing is irrelevant, arbitrary or accidental, so that the logic of the events leads inevitably to a final resolution.
Rand's emphasis on "logical" sequence of events is problematic. No sequence of events is ever "logical." Logic applies to arguments, to propositions. There may exist, for example, a logical sequence of propositions. A sequence of events may be causally connected, but they cannot, on the face of it, be connected by logic. One event is never deduced from another. Rand here is confusing logic with inevitability.

But why is this sort of inevitability of events so important? Rand explains:

A chronicle, real or invented, may possess certain values; but these values are primarily informative—historical or sociological or psychological—not primarily esthetic or literary; they are only partly literary. Since art is a selective re-creation and since events are the building blocks of a novel, a writer who fails to exercise selectivity in regard to events defaults on the most important aspect of his art.
However, all this merely begs the question, leaving us as ignorant as we were before. Why must only inevitable events be regarded "esthetic and literary," whereas non-inevitable events are merely "informative." Rand has failed to provide a compelling argument for the importance of plot in fiction. Are there compelling arguments for other elements? In a word, yes.

Consider, as an alternative view, what H. L. Mencken had to say of the novel:
In brief, a first-rate novel is always a character sketch. It may be more than that, but at bottom it is always a character sketch, or, if the author is genuinely of the imperial line, a whole series of them…
The moral of all this is not lost upon the more competent minority of novelists among us. It was not necessary to preach it to Miss Cather when she set out to write "My Antonia,"… nor to Sinclair Lewis when he was at work on "Babbitt." All such novelists see the character first and the story afterword. What is the story of "Babbitt"? Who remembers? Who, indeed, remembers the story of "The Three Musketeers"? But D'Artagnan and his friends live brilliantly, and so, too, will George F. Babbitt live brilliantly — at all events, until Kiwanis cease to trouble, and his type ceases to be real. Most of the younger American novelists, alas, seem to draw no profit from such examples. It is their aim, apparently, to shock mankind with the vivacity of their virtuosity and the heterodoxy of their ideas, and so they fill their novels with gaudy writing and banal propaganda, and convert their characters into sticks. I am, at times, immensely amused and sometimes I am instructed, but I seldom carry away anything to remember. When I do so, it is not an idea, but a person. Like everyone else, I have a long memory for persons. But ideas come and go. [Prejudices 5, "Essay on Pedagogy"]
Now whether Mencken is right, he at least give a compelling argument for his position: namely, interesting characters are more memorable than stories or plots. And if one examines the novels that are remembered and read generations after they are written, they are all character sketches of some sort or another. They may be a great deal more than that; but few novels survive merely on plot alone.

Rand's view makes every element of narrative fiction subservient to plot:
The plot of a novel serves the same function as the steel skeleton of a skyscraper: it determines the use, placement and distribution of all the other elements. Matters such as number of characters, background, descriptions, conversations, introspective passages, etc. have to be determined by what the plot can carry, i.e., have to be integrated with the events and contribute to the progression of the story.
In practice, this sort of outlook turns characters into mere plot devices. The practical consequence of the sort of plot-driven fiction would be novels populated by unmemorable one-dimensional stick figures. Such novels may survive, as Rand's own Atlas Shrugged has thus far survived, for it's value as an instrument of propaganda; but as literature, it will be scorned and (probably) forgotten. Even as propaganda, it's value is close to nil, because only those who already agree with the message are likely to read and appreciate it. If Rand had really wanted to get her message out and achieve something beyond merely preaching to the choir, she would have striven for Atlas to be character-driven, rather than a plot driven, book. Then, assuming it was well done, intelligent people would have read it, even if they didn't agree with its message. One of the distinguishing characteristics of great literature is that intelligent people will read it even if they don't agree with author's view. Consider, as one example, the novels of Tolstoy. Many people can read and enjoy War and Peace and Anna Karenina without agreeing, or even respecting, Tolstoy's rather eccentric political and social views.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saving The Appearances 2: Notes on Cultism in "The Logical Leap"

If "The Logical Leap" is a Rand-cult book, we should expect it to conform strictly to the Prime Directive of cultism: that the Ayn Rand is the greatest individual that ever lived. Rand-cult books like James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" are written to promote the moral supremacy of Ayn Rand; "The Logical Leap" to promote her intellectual and philosophical supremacy.

However just as the insurmountable conflicts between the Prime Directive and reality forced Valliant's book into sycophantic absurdity, this case presents enormous problems for the true believer. For unlike the problem of universals, or the "is/ought" problem, which Rand claimed to have solved (even though it seems that she neither solved, nor even understood them), with the problem of induction she is on record as stating she had not solved it, and had not even begun to do so.