Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Future of Objectivism 4

Preservation of Orthodoxy. Some Objectivists, following Leonard Peikoff's example, wish to preserve orthodoxy. They desire to prevent other individuals from introducing innovations into Objectivist doctrine. This fear of innovation does not merely stem from a mania for preserving Rand's doctrine in its immaculate, unpolluted form. There may be other motives in the business that intensify the (essentially non-rational) need for doctrinal purity. One important but underrated motive involves competition for status and resources. Most Objectivists would like to believe that many, if not all, schisms are motivated by genuine "philosophical" differences. This is hardly likely. The schism with Kelley, for instance, is often framed as developing over issues of doctrine. Kelley, it was argued, wavered from "true" doctrine. He was guilty, essentially, of heresy. He was not a "true" Objectivist, but an enemy of Objectivism.

Although the official reason for Kelley's dismissal was for speaking in front of a libertarian group, some have suggested that the real reason had more to do with Kelley sanctioning a positive review of Barabara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand. However, there's probably more to it than that. The positive review of Branden's book, written by Robert Bindinotto, was published in 1986. The Peikoff-Kelley schism didn't take place until three years later. The official reasons for the schism are surprisingly flimsy. Late in 1988, Kelley gave a speech at the Laissez-Faire Supper Club in Manhattan. In 1982, Peikoff had been involved in two book signings with Laissez-Faire books. So why is it okay to have book signings with libertarians, and not speeches? Is there really a significant difference between a book signing and a speech?

Friday, November 08, 2013

Future of Objectivism 3

Danger of Charismatic Leader. In my last post, I explored some of the difficulties which will arise with the weakening of a "legitimate" authority. At some point, no one will be alive who knew Rand personally. No one will be able to say, "I spent X amount of years with Rand; I'm therefore the foremost living expert on Rand's philosophy." Like the Protestant churches on Christendom, there will only be The Word; and whether for good or bad, The Word is not entirely unambiguous. Most of Rand's philosophical writings are broad and abstract, crafted as facile rationalizations for various positions, rather than detailed and exhaustive analysis of specific problems. Many of her more topical essays are clearly dated, and will only become more so as time passes. Worse, Rand's own penchant for rationalizing preconceived conclusions set a bad example for her followers, who have become even worse in this regard, which in turn sets a bad example for future Objectivists. For way too many high ranking Objectivists, philosophy becomes a screen through which personal conflicts are fought and rationalized. Taking the longer, more distant, "objective" view is sneered at among some within the Objectivist community as constituting a false ideal of knowledge. The personal and subjective is conflated with the "objective," and followers of Rand, although ostensibly committed to an "objective" rationality, are in fact merely pursing their private, personal agendas. As long as Peikoff has been around, there existed someone who step in and decide which personal agendas would be regarded as "rational" and "objective," and which as mere whims. When Peikoff is gone, adjudication will require an authority figure (or figures). Since groups are naturally hierarchical (authority being necessary to run any organized effort), the task of leadership and authority would naturally fall to either the ARI board and/or ARI's director. Since committees don't always make good leaders (as individual members of the committee sometimes disagree), ARI's director will be the natural seat of authority, assuming the person occupying that position is a strong, rather than a weak, leader. I would contend that there exist institutional incentives in favor of ARI selecting strong, rather than weak leaders, for the ARI's directorship position. Weak leaders tend to be ineffective. In practical terms, a weak leader at the head of ARI could mean: (1) more unresolvable internal conflicts; (2) loss of fund-raising revenue; and (3) less influence among free market advocacy groups.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Future of Objectivism 2

Authority in Objectivism. One of the challenges for ARI moving forward is to deal with the problem of authority. In any organization there are bound to be conflicts between various individuals. Many, if not most, of these conflicts cannot be resolved by "reason" (i.e., rational argumentation). Rational thinking, at best, can only resolve differences about matters of fact. It cannot resolve differences arising from moral preferences (and all moral ends are preferences). Consequently, conflict is inevitable, even between people pretending to be "rational." Inevitably, Objectivists will disagree with one another. If the disagreements involve competition for resources and/or status, they may become quite heated. How are these conflicts to be resolved?

In the past, routine conflicts could be resolved via ARI's board. But when major conflicts have broken out among board members, only one source of authority could be relied upon: Leonard Peikoff. Peikoff himself, in his apologia for having McCaskey removed from the ARI board, explained how this all works:

An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory. the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s) , if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me.

The logic of this argument could be extended to cover any conflict, not just ones arising from intellectual criticism of one of Peikoff's pet projects. Because of Peikoff's unique position as the heir of Rand's estate and the individual who, among the living, "best understands" Rand's ideology, he was the obvious choice to occupy the role of Objectivist pope. Peikoff, however, will not be around forever. After Peikoff leaves the scene, who will be "best qualified" to fill the necessary role of authority at ARI (and, by implication at least, of the orthodox Objectivist movement)?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Future of Objectivism 1

Intro. Having gone through most of the official philosophy of Objectivism, we can now turn our attention to some of the cultural and sociological aspects of the Objectivism movements. There are two major challenges to making prognostications about the future of Objectivism: (1) the future is inherently unpredictable; and (2) lack of sociological data about Objectivism. For these two reasons what is put forth in this series will be highly conjectural. We'll be dealing with possibilities, not facts, questions, not answers.

Throughout I will be operating on several assumptions:

(1) That Objectivism does not exist in a vacuum. What goes on in society and the world will affect the future course of Objectivism. We saw this on a small scale in 2008, with the financial meltdown followed by Obama's election. These events caused sales of Atlas Shrugged to increase. One can imagine scenarios which could potentially decrease interest in Ayn Rand: for example, major attacks on USA involving weapons of mass destruction, catastrophic climate change, collapse of democratic government in America.

(2) That the political allegiances are rarely made based on purely "rational" reasons. Nearly everyone has ingrained biases, some of them rooted in genetics, others in life experiences, which influences political beliefs. Consequently, it is very difficult to get people to change their political beliefs via argumentation. It rarely happens.

(3) That factionalism is a built-in feature of society. The elites of society are involved in a battle for status and pre-eminence. Non-elites will tend to attach themselves to whichever party of elites best furthers their interests and satisfies their sentiments. The competitive nature of society means that people have no choice but to join forces with like-minded individuals. The few mavericks who refuse join one of the major factions remain isolated and powerless, without a voice within the governing factions.

(4) That the Objectivist movement requires an authority figure to settle inevitable disputes. Since Ayn Rand's "reason" is a myth (there's no such method), and since the Objectivist ethics is a bit vague (lacking, as Nathanial Branden has noted, a "technology"), there exists no sure-fire way of settling the inevitable disputes that arise among various Objectivists in a rational, "objective" manner. Only by having an authority respected by all members of the group can meddlesome issues be arbitrated.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 49

Conclusion. Many years ago someone handed me a copy of Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and said, "This will help you think better." That sounded kind of intriguing, so I gave it a try. The experiment proved a failure. ITOE did not improve my thinking; nor have I run across any evidence that ITOE has improved anyone else's thinking. Leonard Peikoff, for example, probably knows ITOE better than any person living. Has it improved his thinking? This is a man who, in 2006, wrote:

Socialism–a fad of the last few centuries–has had its day; it has been almost universally rejected for decades. Leftists are no longer the passionate collectivists of the 30s, but usually avowed anti-ideologists, who bewail the futility of all systems. Religion, by contrast–the destroyer of man since time immemorial–is not fading; on the contrary, it is now the only philosophic movement rapidly and righteously rising to take over the government.

Six years later, Peikoff entirely changed his tune:

As I have explained in The DIM Hypothesis, Obama is in essence a destroyer for the sake of destruction, a nihilist, the first such to become President. The object to be destroyed is America....

Many evils are in store for us if Obama wins a second term, ranging from crippling taxation and Obamacare to the war on energy and the imminence of economic collapse....

I intend to vote for whatever Republicans in my district are running for the House and the Senate. Republican control of at least one of these bodies, however weakened they have become, is still some restraint on Obama if he wins.

How did the Democrats go so quickly from being "avowed anti-ideologists" to supporters of "a destroyer for the sake of destruction"? How have the Republicans been transformed from a "philosophic movement rapidly and righteously rising to take over the government" to the only force capable of exercising "some restraint" on Obama and the Left?

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 48

The rationalist core of the Objectivist Epistemology. Ayn Rand defined rationalists as "those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts." Since Objectivist theory rejects this approach, Objectivists have always believed that they were free from the rationalist taint. However, there is a problem with the Objectivist approach to this issue. If we go by the Objectivist definition, who actually qualifies as a rationalist? Which philosopher, thinker, ideologue obtains all his knowledge of the world exclusively via deduction from concepts, entirely free from the perception of physical facts? In practice, no one does this. It would be impossible. So, practically speaking, who is in fact guilty of rationalism? What, specifically, do those of us who dislike rationalism and criticize it at every opportunity object to?

The critics of rationalism object to the practice of determing complex matters of fact through "logical" deductions from over-generalized descriptions of facts. Use of over-generalized facts is often a symptom of insufficient knowledge. People who lack mastery (i.e., relevant factual knowledge) of a given subject don't realize the extent of their ignorance. They are therefore incapable of appreciating why their conclusions are false. The problem with rationalism, therefore, is not that the rationalist derives conclusions without factual evidence, but that he derives conclusions without sufficient evidence. The rationalist suffers from empirical irresponsibility.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 47

Meaning, precision, and vagueness. In the final chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand introduces some rather peculiar speculations on "further problems of epistemology." She begins by applying her mathematics metaphor, which she used in her "solution" to the problem of universals, to propositions:

Since concepts, in the field of cognition, perform a function similar to that of numbers in the field of mathematics, the function of a proposition is similar to that of an equation: it applies conceptual abstractions to a specific problem.

A proposition, however, can perform this function only if the concepts of which it is composed have precisely defined meanings. If, in the field of mathematics, numbers had no fixed, firm values, if they were mere approximations determined by the mood of their users ... there would be no such thing as the science of mathematics. [IOTE, 75]

I have already noted Rand's conflation of identity with understanding. In this passage Rand is guilty of conflating meaning with reference. This conflation is hardwired into the very warp and woof of the Objectivist epistemology. It is implicit in Rand's mania for establishing the "validity" of concepts. Remember, for Rand, concepts are knowledge; which means they must have a reference in reality (for if they did not "stand" for something in reality, they could not be regarded as knowledge.) If we follow the (implicit) logic in the Objectivist epistemology, unicorn is an "invalid" concept because it has no referent. For Rand a "valid" concept must have both a meaning and a reference.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 46

Cognitive Role of Concepts. In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand sought to solve the "problem" of universals, which she decided involved the issue of what concepts refer to in the real world. This issue is inextricably connected to the issue of classification. Concepts, for Rand, refer to classes of "units." Rand's "problem of universals" resolves ultimately into the issue of how the data of sense is classified under various concepts.

Essentially, Rand provides a two part answer to this question. Concepts are classified (1) by their distinguishing characteristic(s), with their "measurements omitted"; and (2) concepts are classified in terms of "essential characteristics," which renders them cognitively efficient. In my last two posts, I refuted the first part of this answer. In this post, I will examine the second part.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 45

Measurement Omission 2: In my last post, I introduced Merlin Jetton's criticism of Rand's measurement omission theory. In this post, I will introduce what I consider an even more devestating criticism.

The number one issue with Rand's measurement omission hypothesis is that it attempts to solve an entirely irrelevant problem. It's a false solution to a false problem. Rand's "problem of universals" is a misnomer. Historically, the problem of universals dealt with whether universals were "real" (in the metaphysical sense). Rand deals with what might be called "the problem of Objectivist concepts." Rand introduces this issue as follows:

When we refer to three persons as "men," what do we designate by that term? The three persons are three individuals who differ in every particular respect and may not possess a single identical characteristic (not even their fingerprints). If you list all their particular characteristics, you will not find one representing manness. Where is the "manness" in men? What, in reality, corresponds to the concept "man" in our mind? [IOTE, 2]

Since Rand regards concept as the principle unit of human knowledge, the issue of how concepts "correspond" to reality becomes a problem. But what if we don't regard concepts as the principal unit of knowledge? What if we regard them merely as symbols conveying meanings? If a concept merely means what it means, then there's no issue of "validity" or correspondence at all. These meanings can be used to make assertions about anything, real or unreal, truth or lies.  The merit of this approach is that it nips in the bud futile arguments about the meanings of words. What a word (or "concept") means is immaterial. It's the meaning of the statement that is important, and that meaning is whatever is intended by the individual who presents the statement. Once we understand the intended meaning of the statement, we can go about testing it to determine whether its true or false, plausible or implausible. By regarding concepts merely as meanings, rather than knowledge, we overstep altogether Rand's problem of universals and concepts. Instead of worrying about the relation of concepts to reality, we focus on the relation of our statements and theories to the real world. The problem of universals is replaced by the far more fruitful problem of theories. Testing and criticizing theories becomes our primary objective; while concepts merely become the vehicle for expressing our theories.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 44

Measurement Omission 1. Having finished our slow, tedious slog through Peikoff's essay on the Analytic-Sythethic Dichotomy, we can return to the Rand's IOTE and finish out this series on the Objectivist Epistemology.

While much of IOTE is clearly agenda driven (the agenda being Rand's theory of history), there is a portion of Rand's epistemology which, although not entirely free of agenda-based thinking, at least is intermixed with some level of genuine truth-seeking. For example, Rand seems to have sincerely believed that her measurement-omission theory solved the "problem of universals." The question confronting the critic is to determine whether her measurement-omission theory actually delivers the goods.

Rand claimed that  “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.” [13, italics added] This theory has been decisively refuted by Merlin Jetton in a paper he wrote for Kelley's Objectivist Center (now known as the Atlas Society):

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 43

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 16: Falsifibility. Toward the end of his essay on the Anayltic-Synthetic Dichotomy, Peikoff tackles falsifiability:

Those who claim to distinguish a posteriori and a priori propositions commonly maintain that certain truths (the synthetic, factual ones) are "empirically falsifiable," whereas others (the analytic, logical ones) are not. In the former case, it is said, once can specify experiences which, if they occurred, would invalidate the proposition; in the latter, one cannot. For instance, the proposition "Cats give birth only to kittens" is empirically falsifiable" because one can invent experiences that would refute it such as the spectacle of tiny elephants emerging from a cat's womb. But the proposition "Cats are animals" is not "empirically falsifiable" because "cat" is defined as a species of animal....

Observe the inversion propounded by this argument: a proposition can qualify as a factual, empirical truth only if man is able to evade the facts of experience and arbitrarily ... invent a set of impossible circumstances that contradict these facts; but a truth whose opposite is beyond man's power of invention, is regarded as independent of and irrelevant to the nature of reality, i.e., as an arbitrary product of human "convention." [IOTE, 117-118]

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 42

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 15: Concepts as Theories. In a previous post, I criticized the Objectivist view that concepts constitute the principle unit of knowledge. Although Rand argued that concepts contain an "implicit" proposition indicating that the referents of the concept exist, she is not on record as endorsing the view that there may be many implicit propositions lurking inside concepts. Yet the doctrine that concepts contain many propositions is strongly implied by what Peikoff writes in his essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy:

The epistemological basis of [the logical-factual dichotomy] is the view that a concept consists only of its definition. According to the dichotomy, it is logically impermissible to contradict the definition of a concept; what one asserts by this means is "logically" impossible. But to contradict any of the non-defining characteristics of a concept's referents, is regarded as logically permissible; what one asserts in such a case is merely "empirically" impossible.

Thus, a "married bachelor" contradicts the definition of "bachelor" and hence is regarded as "logically" impossible. But a "bachelor who can fly to the moon by means of flapping his arms" is regarded a "logically" possible, because the definition of "bachelor" ("an unmarried man") does not specify his means of locomotion. [IOTE, 115]

Implicit in this criticism is the view that concepts include all the characteristics of a concept's referent. In practical terms, that means all proposotions about a concept, including theories, would presumably be included in the concept. For Objectivism, a concept is not a symbolic meaning used to represent something outside itself; it is, rather, a container which includes everything known (or potentially knowable) about the concept's referent. As Peikoff puts it, "the concept 'man' ... includes all the characteristics of the 'man.'" [115]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Objectivism & Epistemology, 41

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 14: Peikoff on Logic and Experience. After discussing contigency and necessity, Peikoff moves on the logic and experience. He repeats his favorite charge against the analytic-sythetic dichotomy:

Any theory that propounds an opposition between the logical and empirical, represents a failure to grasp the nature of logic and its role in human cognition. [IOTE, 112]

Do advocates of the ASD really propound an "opposition" between logic and experience? Perhaps some do; but without giving examples, Peikoff is merely issuing an unsubstantiated assertion. The ASD grew out of distinctions generated by Hume and Kant. These philosophers were attacking rationalistic speculation (what Kant called "pure" reason). They were not, however, banishing logic from human cognition.

Peikoff goes on the present a brief one-paragraph digest of the Objectivist theory of knowledge:

Man is born tabula rasa; all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of the senses. To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data --- and conceptualization is a process which is neither automatic nor infallible. Man needs to discover a method to guide this process, if it is to yield conclusions which correspond to the facts of reality --- i.e., which represent knowledge. The principle at the base of the proper method is the fundamental principle of metaphysics: the Law of Identity. In reality, contradiction is the proof of an error. Hence the method man must follow: to identify the facts he observes, in a non-contradictory manner. This method is logic --- "the art of non-contradictory identification." Logic must be employed at every step of a man's conceptual development, from the formulation of his first concepts to the discovery of the most complex scientific laws and theories. Only when a conclusion is based on a noncontradictory identification and integration of all the evidence at a given time, can it qualify as knowledge. [IOTE, 112-113]

Let's examine this paragraph sentence by sentence.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology, 40

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 13: Is contingency necessary? Objectivists tend to be overly fond of accusing their philosophical opponents of the "stolen concept" fallacy. If some philosophers insists "Nobody can be certain!" an Objectivist is bound to retort: "Can you be certain of that!" What is lost is such facile refutations are the nuances and depth of rigorous philosophical discourse. Stolen-concept "refutations" constitute a philosophical short-cut that fails to do justice to either side in the debate.

If, in opposing the Peikoffian view of necessity, we were to declare the contingency of truth, we must be prepared for stereotypical Objectivist refutation, namely: Is this declared contingency of truth itself a necessary truth? The philosopher George Santayana answered this charge in his book The Realm of Truth as follows:

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Best Living Philosopher Reviews ARCHN

"Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" and the ARCHNblog have their critics. Some have the decided advantage of having read the book. Some have not, but following in the footsteps of Ayn Rand herself do not see this as much of a obstacle to voicing a strong opinion. A recent critic, Elliot Temple, happily falls into the former category. He has reviewed the book here at his blog, and has also posted it in various Objectivist-friendly corners of the internet. While his review is somewhat lengthy and more than somewhat unfavourable both to the book and to us personally, we are happy to link to it here and let readers make up their own minds as to its merits.

All we would note is that Temple is a rare and interesting bird in the Objectivist aviary in that he is both a fan of Objectivism and Karl Popper's Critical Rationalism, two philosophies that are ostensibly opposed. We also advise readers in advance that Temple bills himself as "the best living philosopher", so perhaps we should be flattered to get his attention.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Now We Know

The site Objectivist Answers has provided an answer at least one burning question; namely, who is and who isn't an Objectivist. From their FAQ:
  • You are not an Objectivist if you consider yourself to be a libertarian (or associate with the Libertarian Party), advocate revising Objectivism (like David Kelley's "open system"), or associate with false advocates of Objectivism (like David Kelley, Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, and Chris Sciabarra)
Actually, the question it really answers is how Rand's allegedly rational approach to defining terms really operates in practice.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Open Thread

Oi, you lot with a bunch of unresolved topics to discuss.

Over here.

An Objectivist Answers

QuantumHaecceity commented on Ayn Rand & Epistemology 39:
Well, I consider myself an expert on Objectivism, so you can run whatever fatal flaws Objectivism is supposed to have by me.
I'll try to answer them in "real time"(I.E. in like a day or less, as opposed to say 2 weeks from now) That goes out to the particularly irritating, intransigent, belligerent Objectivist haters like Parille, Barnes, Nyquist, and of course Prescott.
This is probably one of the few times this has, or will happen. So take advantage of it...
As I don't want yet another epic thread hijack I've started a new one here. I'd like to ask Quantum a couple of questions to begin with:

1) Would you care to post under your real name? Most of the commenters critical of Rand here do, yet hardly any of Rand's defenders do. I'm not sure why. At any rate, it tends to be a bit more convivial.

2) Have you read Greg's book and/or many of the posts on this blog? Most of our would-be critics have done neither. If so, that would be a good start.

3) If not the above, what do you regard as good quality criticisms of Rand?

Update: My next questions are posted in comments.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 39

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 12: Necessity and Rationalistic Speculation. In my last post, I introduced some of Peikoff's objections to the view that all facts are contingent. Peikoff described this view as "secularized mysticism," suggesting that belief in the contingency of facts is motivated by a desire to evade reality. However, as with Peikoff's attacks on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, we find LP once again missing the point. Historically, the contingency of facts doctrine has tended to be most popular among empiricists, not because they were fact-evaders, but because they despised rationalistic speculation. Rationalists and Idealists often use necessity to justify reasoning about matters of fact. If all you wish to achieve is to note that all bachelors are unmarried, or that all the characters of thought have identity, or that up is opposite from down, then there is no real great objection to philosophical speculation. If it is merely an explication of meanings, speculate to your hearts content. But philosophers and ideologues wish to go further. They wish to use philosophical speculation to determine matters of fact. And I'm not talking about trivial facts such as "The sun rises in the east," or "water flows downhill." No, they wish to use speculation to determine facts about the "nature of man," "necessities in nature," the usefulness and/or "validation" of inductive reasoning, and the workings of their favorite moral and  political systems. In short, they wish to determine matters of fact which, even under the most rigorous scientific standards of peer review and criticism, are not easily ascertainable, by doing little more than spinning rationalistic webs. Such a method does not provide reliable knowledge of difficult-to-know matters of fact.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 38

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 11: Necessity and Contingency. After flogging the analytical synthetic dichotomy for several pages, Peikoff focuses on a new target: "the dichotomy between necessary and contingent facts." Per usual with Peikoff, he labors under the presumption that there is a kind of consensus governing contemporary philosophy on this issue:

[The necessary-contingent dichotomy] was interpreted in the twentieth century as follows: since facts are learned by experience, and experience does not reveal necessity, the concept "necessary facts" must be abandoned. Facts, it is now held, are one and all contingent --- and the propositions describing them are "contingent truths." As for necessary truths, they are merely the products of man's linguistic or conceptual conventions. They do not refer to facts, they are empty, "analytic," "tautological." [107]

Although not all or even most contemporary philosopher accept the necessary-contingent dichotomy, those that do advocate it believe in something close to what Peikoff describes. In other words, Peikoff has not grossly misstated this particular view, which is unusual for him. What, then, is his objection to this dichotomy? His main objection is the view, supposedly entailed by the dichotomy, that facts are contingent. Such a view, contends Peikoff,

represents a failure to grasp the Law of Identity. Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur by chance. The nature of an entity determines what it can do and, in any given set of circumstances, dictates what it will do. The Law of Causality is entailed by the Law of Identity. Entities follow certain laws of action in consequence of their identity, and have no alternative to doing so. [108-109]

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 37

Analytical-Synthetic Dichotomy 10: Peikoff's Argument. In a previous post, I criticized Peikoff's theory of meaning, which asserts that "the meaning of a concept consists of the units ... it integrates." This Objectivist theory of meaning, as I noted in that post, contains both platonist and positivistic aspects. It separates meaning from individual intent and turns concepts into quasi-platonist entities that literally transcribe the world. As a theory of meaning, it is not merely absurd according to the the standards of good sense, but even in terms of Rand's own philosophy. To be sure, Objectivism contains its fair share of absurdities. However, many of Rand's metaphysical and epistemological doctrines, if interpreted generously, have at least an aura of plausibility about them. They at least attempt to pay lip service to common sense and practical efficacy. But the Objectivist theory of meaning seems bad all the way through. It's not only bad philosophy, it's bad Objectivism as well. It is not consistent with Rand's own theory of "unit economy," or with Rand's career as a writer of fiction. Meaning cannot be confined to the literally true, as Rand's theory of meaning, if it were consistently applied, would demand.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 36

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 9: Thinking in Essentials Redux. Peikoff resumes his jihad against nominalism with the following bit of libelous persiflage:

On a rational view of definition, a definition organizes and condenses — and thus helps one to retain — a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics of a concept's units. On the nominalist view, it is precisely this knowledge that is discarded when one defines a concept: as soon as a defining characteristic is chosen, all the other characteristics of the units are banished from the concept, which shrivels to a mere definition. For instance, as long as a child's concept of "man" is retained ostensively, the child knows that man has a head, two eyes, two arms, etc.; on the nominalist view as soon as the child defines "man," he discards all this knowledge; thereafter, "man" means to him only: "a thing with rationality and animality." [IOTE, 104]

Note the complete absence of empirical examples to support Peikoff's contentions: which nominalists, after all, believe the people discard knowledge after defining words? Is it too much to ask for names, followed by documented evidence? This absence of evidence is not only intentional, but necessary: there can be no examples because it's unlikely any nominalist ever held the position attributed them by Peikoff in this passage. What Peikoff and other Objectivists still can't seem to grasp is that definitions define words, not concepts. The definition explains how a particular word is to be used. It gives the meaning of the word in different terms. Neither Rand nor Peikoff ever bothered to provide evidence for the assertion that definitions organize and condense knowledge about the characteristics of a concept's units. Since definitions only express the same meaning in different words, they add no knowledge about external matters of fact (other than knowledge about word usage).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 35

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 8: Propostions Redux. One attractive feature of Peikoff's essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy is that it contains several unequivocal statements about some of Rand's more controversial opinions. Hence we find in the essay the clearest expression of Rand's views about the relation between concepts and propositions:

Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions: propositions are only combinations of concepts. [IOTE, 97]

This view is manifestly false. Indeed, it's so palpably erroneous that one wonders why Rand adopted it. Perhaps she considered it necessary to nip the horrors of linguistic analysis in the bud. If so, she chose a cure that was worse than the disease.

That propositions are more than just combinations of concepts can be observed from how propositions affect and even create meaning. The meaning of words (which for Rand symbolize concepts) changes depending on how they are used in propositions. And many words have no meaning at all if used by themselves. Objectivists seem to be guilty of the fallacy that, merely because each word has a dictionary meaning, that words (and by implication concepts) mean something when used outside of propositions. However, most words convey no meaning when not used in a proposition.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 34

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 7: Naming and Knowledge. I have repeatedly insisted that definitions define word usage. Perhaps, before we go any further, this needs to be fleshed out a bit.

Naming an object, a process, or an attribute involves little if any knowledge. Take the word poison. This term can be defined as any chemical substance that injures, impairs, or kills an organism. Note that this definition doesn't actually specify what chemical substances are in fact poisons or whether such substances exist. It merely states that if a chemical substance injures, impairs, or kills, then we will call it a "poison."

Does this definition of poison provide any non-trivial information about matters of fact? No, it does not. It is quite possible to know the definition of poison and yet know nothing of any specific poison. The definition of poison merely provides a naming convention. If you come across a substance that harms or kills an organism, it's "poison." But a naming convention is not knowledge. Knowing what to call things is different from knowing about things.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 33

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 6: Identity, Understanding, and Platonism. Where do concepts exist? Where do they reside? In his essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy, Peikoff makes the following assertion:
What, then, is the meaning of the concept "man"? "Man" means a certain type of entity, a rational animal, including all the characteristics of this entity (anatomical, physiological, psychological, etc. as well as the relation of those characteristics to those of other entities) --- all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered. Whatever is true of the entity, is meant by the concept.
It follows that there are no grounds on which to distinguish "analytic" from "synthetic" propositions. Whether one states that "A man is a rational animal," or that "A man has only two eyes" --- in both cases, the predicated characteristics are true of man and are, therefore, included in the concept "man." [IOTE, 100]
I have already criticized this view of meaning on the assumption that a person can only mean what he knows. It could also be criticized for assuming that people always mean what is "true of the entity." What if they mean something else? What if they intend to use words to deceive or to rationalize? But there's another criticism I would like to introduce in this post, one which I have previously broached but which needs to be explained in more detail. Peikoff speaks about the concept "man." This concept, he says, includes "all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered." Now the concepts that people actually have in their minds don't, as far as we can tell, include "all the characteristics known and to be discovered." How could they? An individual's conception of something can only include what he knows of it. Peikoff, however, writes of concepts as if they are some sort of supra-human thing, identical in all respects regardless of where they might reside.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 32

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 5: Meaning, Intention, and Truth. In my last post, I criticized the Objectivist theory of meaning for being both quasi-Platonist and quasi-positivist. However, that only skims the surface of what is wrong with the theory. There is a much more serious problem with the Objectivist theory of meaning, which is this: it is not true. As a theory of meaning, it is inextricably incoherent. It confuses meaning and truth. If taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion, it would assert that all meaning is true, which would imply that no one could ever mean something that was false. In practical terms, it encourages Rand's followers to become obssessed with how conclusions are made, rather than with whether such conclusions can be tested. Such are the fruits of Rand's attempt to build a theory of definitions and concepts on the out-moded and anti-scientific views of Plato and Aristotle.

Peikoff declares that "a concept means the existents which it integrates." [IOTE, 98] Meaning, however, doesn't work like that. An individual, particularly an egotist, may presume he means, when using some word, all the "integrated" existents; but really he only means what he asserts of it. If a man believes that, in speaking of something, he means everything about it, he is obviously deluded; for he cannot possibly know everything about an object; nor would it be a cognitive ideal worth striving for, since most knowledge is trivial and not worth knowing at all. What people mean when they say something or think about something is merely their conception of the things they are speaking or thinking about. Such a conception, to the extent that it contains true information about matters of fact, is always partial and inadequate. Knowledge is not a mirror: it does not exhaustively describe, or minutely characterize, its objects. It doesn't have to. Human beings only require enough information to survive and procreate.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 31

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 4: Objectivist theory of meaning. After providing a brief summary of Rand's theory of concepts, Peikoff introduces the Objectivist theory of meaning:

Since a word is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept it symbolizes. And since a concept is an integration of units, it has no content or meaning apart from its units. The meaning of a concept consists of the units — the existents — which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units.
Observe that concepts mean existents, not arbitrarily selected portions of existents....

Metaphysically, an entity is: all of the things which it is. Each of its characteristics has the same metaphysical status: each constitutes a part of the entity's identity.

Epistemologically, all the characteristics of the entities subsumed under a concept are discovered by the same basic method: by observation of these entities. The initial similarities, on the basis of which certain concretes were isolated and conceptually integrated, were grasped by a process of observation; all subsequently discovered characteristics of these concretes are discovered by the same method (no matter how complex the inductive processes involved may become).

The fact that certain characteristics are, at a given time, unknown to man, does not indicate that these characteristics are excluded from the entity — or from the concept. A is A; existents are what they are, independent of the state of human knowledge; and a concept means the existents which it integrates. Thus, a concept subsumes and includes all the characteristics of its referents, known and not-yet-known. [IOTE, 98-99]

Rand's strange doctrine that "a concept means the existents which it integrates" leads her to adopt a quasi-Platonist view of concepts. Concepts are not seen as psychological processes occurring within an actual human brain, but as ideal forms which real concepts can approach, if never quite match. Peikoff complains about the Platonic "essence-accident" dichotomy, which he suggests is at the root of the ASD. But there is a dichotomy in Rand that is far more perplexing and gratuitous: the dichotomy between concepts as immaculate representations subsuming all the characteristics of a referent, and the actual concepts human beings hold within their minds. Apologists for Rand will undoubtedly cry foul over my description of the Objectivist theory. But I have merely drawn out what is clearly implied by the theory itself. "A concept subsumes and includes all the characteristics of its referents, known and not-yet-known," declares Peikoff (undoubtedly speaking for Rand). How can a concept existing in a human mind include not-yet-known information? The only way this theory makes any sense is to assume that a concept is a kind of ideal construct, which our minds are trying to approach. Actual concepts (i.e., concepts existing in human minds) must fall short of that ideal construct, because human beings, as even Rand admits, are fallible. On this view of concepts, the aim of knowledge would be to approach that ideal concept as much as is humanly possible.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 30

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 3: Definitional Arguments. One of the principle philosophical vices of Objectivism is a mania for rationalizing on the basis of tautologies. Closely associated with this is a concomitant mania for rationalizing on the basis of definitions. This in large measure explains Rand's doctrine of immaculate definitions (i.e., her belief that definitions can be true or false). The problem with definitional reasoning is that it begs the question. Instead of basing arguments on facts, it bases it on definitions; and definitions, which only define word usage, are "arbitrary."

In the opening of his essay on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, Peikoff provides the following anecdote about a discussion he had with a professor which illustrates how Objectivists use definitions and logic to evade facts while assuming the very point at issue:

Some years ago, I was defending capitalism in a discussion with a prominent professor of philosophy. In answer to his charge that capitalism leads to coercive monopolies, I explained that such monopolies are caused by government intervention in the economy and logically impossible under capitalism.... The professor was singularly unmoved by my argument, replying:

"Logically impossible? Of course -- granted your definitions. You're merely saying that, no matter what proportion of the market it controls, you won't call a business a 'coercive monopoly' if it occurs in a system you call 'capitalism.' Your view is true by arbitrary fiat, it's a matter of semantics, it's logically true but not factually true. Leave logic aside now; be serious and consider the actual empirical facts on this matter."

Doubts arise, of course, as to whether Peikoff has accurately related the professor's argument. But even if this professor said what Peikoff claims he said, the professor nonetheless has a point. Objectivists do in fact tend to resort to definitional arguments. Such arguments suffer from the fallacy of begging the question. Grant someone's definitions, and the rest follows, logically. But since definitions merely establish what one means by the words one uses, this is not enough.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 29

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 2: Facts empirical, logic ideal. This subject was fleshed out in an earlier post in my series of on Rand's metaphysics. I wrote:
It is the real world, not logic, which makes a thing true. Facts, nature, reality constitute the standard of truth, not logic. I would also note that, while there exists an infinite number of logical expressions (after all, every mathematic equation is a logical expression, and there are an infinite number of such expressions), only a small fraction of those will find exemplification in existence. Logical validity is therefore no warrant of truth.

Peikoff's attack on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is primarily an attack on the distinction, central to "metaphysical" realism, that facts are empirical and logic is ideal. In order to carry out his attack, Peikoff draws inferences from the analytic-synthetic dichotomy that only the most doltish philosophers would ever dream of accepting:

Analytic truths ... are non-empirical -- because they say nothing about the world of experience. No fact can ever cast doubt on them, they are immune from future correction -- because they are immune from reality....

Synthetic propositions, on the other hand, are factual -- and for this, man pays a price. The price is that they are contingent, uncertain and unprovable.

The theory of the analytic synthetic dichotomy presents men with the following choices: If your statement is proved, it says nothing about that which exists; if it is about existents, it cannot be proved. If it is demonstrated by logical argument, it represents a subjective convention; if it asserts a fact, logic cannot establish it. If you validate it by an appeal to the meanings of your concepts, then it is cut off from reality; if you validate it by an appeal to your percepts, then you cannot be certain of it. [IOTE, 93-94]

Here we find a choice example of a failure to get the point. When Wittgenstien wrote, "The propositions of logic all say the same thing: that is nothing," this was not meant as an attack against logic or truth; it was meant as an attack against rationalistic speculation. Logic, by it's own devices, can only insure that the conclusion of an argument are consistent with its premises (i.e., that it says "the same thing," as Wittgenstien puts it). It's not the function of logic to determine whether the premises or the conclusion are true. While logic can be a very useful tool in testing and arriving at truth, it is not itself true, nor is it a fail-safe test of truth.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 28

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 1: Intro. From the confusions of Rand's theory of definitions we descend into the incoherencies of Peikoff's criticism of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. Hardly the most agreeable of tasks, but it's time someone took a critical eye on the Peikoff's main contribution to Objectivist epistemology.

Wikipedia explains the analytic-synthetic dichotomy as follows:
The analytic–synthetic distinction (also called the analytic–synthetic dichotomy) is a conceptual distinction, used primarily in philosophy to distinguish propositions into two types: analytic propositions and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are true by virtue of their meaning, while synthetic propositions are true by how their meaning relates to the world.[1] However, philosophers have used the terms in very different ways. Furthermore, philosophers have debated whether there is a legitimate distinction.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 27

Definitions: postscript. Many Objectivists and even some non-Objectivists have difficulty understanding what is wrong with Rand's view of definitions. They remain hung up on several myths which Rand uses to give an aura of credence to her view. These myths are:
  1. Precision in words is extremely important
  2. Denials of the importance of word precision are motivated by a dishonest desire to attack human knowledge
  3. Misuse of language (e.g., through equivocation) demonstrates the need of precise definitions 
Let's examine each of these myths:

Monday, January 07, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 26

Definitions: conclusion. Rand's theory of definitions constitutes one of the most Aristolean aspects of her philosophy. There are, to be sure, changes (e.g., essences are "epistemological" rather than "metaphysical"), but in the end these changes amount to very little. Objectivism is an essentialistic, definition-based philosophy. As I've noted in earlier posts, definitions are at the heart of Rand's epistemology. Rand suggests that the reason why people disagree with her about morality and politics is that they are guilty of holding "wrong" or inaccurate definitions. If we all formed definitions "properly," we'd all agree with Objectivism.

In this series on definitions, I have sought to show why Rand's theory is erroneous. Rand tacitly thought of meaning as being something different than the concept. So if an individual ascribed the wrong meaning to a specific concept, they were in effect using the wrong definition. However, if I define tomatos as a fruit with an orange rind, I am not actually guilty of using a wrong definition; I'm guilty of improper word usage. Fruit with an orange rind is itself a concept, as is any meaning whatsoever. That's essentially all that a concept is: a meaning. What word is connected to a specific meaning is a matter of convention. A specific meaning can neither be true or false. It merely is. Nor does it matter one jot whether a proposed meaning accords with anything in reality. The meaning/concept of unicorn is every bit as "valid" as the meaning/concept of horse. What is important is what we assert of a specific meaning within the confines of a proposition. The proposition Unicorns exist is false; the proposition Horses exist is true.

Friday, January 04, 2013

"100 Voices" Reviewed

Occasional ARCHNblog contributor Neil Parille takes a look at the Ayn Rand Institute's latest retouching job: "100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand". Kind and generous, beloved of children and small animals, never a cross word spoken etc.