Friday, December 31, 2010
If we go by the evidence collated from common experience (i.e., so-called "common sense"), it is far more likely that man's "values" are an expression of his emotions, rather than vice versa. Rand is here guilty of assuming that man's values are (or ought to be) the product of non-emotional cogitation. But since cognitive science has discovered that non-emotional cogitation is probably a fantasy, we have every reason to believe that emotions must play at least a part in the forming of values. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how it could not be so. Ask any individual why he values something, and it will be found that some emotion or desire or sentiment is at the bottom of the whole thing. If a man values a certain type of music, it is because listening to it causes him pleasure; if he values meditation, it is because it improves his well-being (i.e., it makes him feel better); if he values self-flagellation, it is because he believes it will improve his well-being in the hereafter. Some values, of course, are rather contrived and even mad, such as values attached to ideological and religious systems; but there's still some sentiment or desire that is at the bottom of it, however twisted or narcissitic it might be. The individual who values mercy to child molesters might be guilty of entertaining a perverse and artificial value, disconnected from any natural need or sentiment, but that value has its root, not in "reason" or logic, but in some kind of pathological humanitarian affectation.
This point was fleshed out by Hume more than 250 years ago, as follows:
It appears evident, that the ultimate ends [i.e., values] of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man, why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.
Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other... Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.
Not only did Rand fail to provide evidence for her curious contention, she made no attempt to grapple with contrary arguments. Hume's position, as stated above, appears nearly irrefragible. In any case, if Rand wishes her contention to be taken seriously, at the very least she should have given us compelling reasons to reject Hume's argument. How, if not on the basis of some sentiment or affection, does man come by any values at all? If Rand had been a serious thinker dedicated the discovery and elucidation of truth, she would have attempted to provide a serious, detailed, fact-based answer to this question.
[This being the last post of 2010, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all the good readers of ARCHNBlog a happy New Year. And to our bad readers, also, a happy New Year.]
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
“An emotion that clashes with your reason is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.” How on earth did Rand know this? Without providing even a jot of evidence, it becomes impossible for a rational person to judge this assertion.
Let us conduct a little thought experiment to see if we can figure out how Rand came to this extraordinary judgment. Let us begin by inquiring as to where Rand could have ever come by such knowledge. I can think of only three possible ways:
- Very sophisticated cognitive science experiments
- Through introspection
- By reading other people's minds
Right from the start we can dismiss the third possibility. No Objectivist, no matter how besotten with Rand, would ever claim she had ESP powers. Could she have conducted cognitive science experiments? Very unlikely. In any case, there is no evidence that she ever did conduct such experiments. (If she did so, such experiments need to be released so that other cognitive scientists can determine if they can reduplicate Rand's findings.) So this leaves us with only one possibility: Rand discovered it through introspection.
From the start, this is deeply problematic. Since consciousness is only "the tip of the iceberg," it would appear unlikely that Rand could have introspected her way to the discovery that clashes between "reason" and "emotion" are caused by "stale" thinking which the mind was forbidden to revise. But let us, in the interest of our thought experiment, waive this objection. After all, Rand was (as her apologists never cease reminding us) such an amazing person that perhaps it is possible that she made this stupendous discover about "stale" thinking through introspection. What we want to know is: How did this introspection work? What did Rand in fact introspect?
There seems only one possible way Rand could have introspected her insight about the relation between "reason," emotion, and "stale thinking." Rand herself must have had an experience involving stale thinking leading to reason-emotion clashes. At some point, Rand must have introspected herself involved in a bout of "stale thinking" (whatever that might be); she must have further introspected her mind engaged in the process of forbidding any revision of this "stale" cogitation; and, finally, she must have introspected the resulting clash between "reason" and emotion. Moreover, since Rand could not have made her grand conclusion from one experience alone (since it might have been a coincidence that "stale thinking" led to the reason-emotion clash in the first instance), we must assume that Rand introspected multiple experiences of this process. That was rather brave of her, don't you think?
Now there is just one other problem we have to address. Since, on the assumptions of our thought experiment, Rand's knowledge is based solely on her own private experiences as perceived via introspection, we cannot be sure that her claim applies to other people. Human beings are notoriously different; and one cannot assume a priori that what is true of one individual is true of every individual. Therefore, the most we can acknowledge in regards to Rand's assertion about stale thinking is that it might have been true about Rand: perhaps her "stale thinking," when once her mind refused to revise it, led to clashes between her reason and her emotion. Whether "stale thinking" leads to such reason-emotion clashes in other people remains an open question.
To be sure, if we allow science to be the guide to this issue, rather than merely suppositions about what Rand might have discovered via introspection, we reach a very different conclusion. According to cognitive science, it is a misnomer to talk about a clash between "reason" and emotion. Since "reason" must always operate with the assistance of emotion (i.e., Damasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis), it is pointless to gripe about a clash between "reason" and emotion. A clash between "reason" and emotion is really a clash between two emotions, one of which is in league with "reason." Spinoza may have been right all along when he claimed: "An emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another emotion contrary thereto, and with more power for controlling emotion."
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
In point of fact, Rand's assertion is almost certainly false. In any case, if it is a conjecture, it's been falsified by the "Iowa Gambling Task," an experiment that demonstrated the ability of the unconscious mind to make inferences on its own:
Participants are presented with 4 virtual decks of cards on a computer screen. They are told that each time they choose a card they will win some game money. Every so often, however, choosing a card causes them to lose some money. The goal of the game is to win as much money as possible. Every card drawn will earn the participant a reward. Occasionally, a card will also have a penalty. Thus, some decks are "bad decks", and other decks are "good decks", because some will lead to losses over the long run, and others will lead to gains. The decks differ from each other in the number of trials over which the losses are distributed.
Most healthy participants sample cards from each deck, and after about 40 or 50 selections are fairly good at sticking to the good decks.... Concurrent measurement of galvanic skin response shows that healthy participants show a "stress" reaction to hovering over the bad decks after only 10 trials, long before conscious sensation that the decks are bad.
In other words, the unconscious mind figures out which decks are bad before this awareness reaches the conscious mind. These findings are consistent with a large body of experimental research (see Timothy Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves).
“If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character.” The phrase "programmed by chance" means something along the lines of: not sufficiently focused. Remember that according to Objectivism, the ultimate choice is to focus or not. Stated in its bald form, this seems extreme. Since any conscious person is, ipso facto, focused, this doctrine has to be restated in terms of degrees. It is the degree of focus that is important. One needs an intense enough degree of focus to be aware of one's own conceptual integrations, or else one will be prone to integrating errors. Those errors, once planted into one's subconscious, will lead to irrational emotions and other disturbing psychological phenomena (such as, par example, a fondness for "malevolent" art or music).
Did Rand provide any evidence for this view? Nope. Nor did she explain why she believed it. Then what reason can any rational person have for believing it? None whatever.
As anyone who has bothered to read some of the popular expositions about the "adaptive" unconscious knows, the subconscious (or unconscious--these words mean the same thing) doesn't work this way. The conscious not only processes knowledge, but makes decisions and organizes memory. The relevant evidence (see the above mentioned Strangers to Ourselves) strongly suggests that the conscious mind neither is nor could be in control all the time. The conscious mind, far from being a gate keeper of what goes into the unconscious, can at best merely provide critical testing of what comes out.
A “ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection” yielding a “conceptual identification of your inner states” allows one to discover the sources of one’s emotions. Same problem as before: how does Rand know this? what is her evidence?
Since it's now generally believed that the conscious mind is merely the "tip of the iceberg," Rand's advice about "ruthlessly honest" introspection seems misplaced. Since most of one's "inner states" lie below the threshold of consciousness, they cannot be introspected. It matters little how ruthless honest the individual hopes to be when the impossible is his goal. The attempt to introspect what cannot be introspected will most likely lead to little else but self-aggrandizing rationalizations.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception....Where is Rand's evidence for this view? Again, we have nothing -- merely her own say-so. In Objectivism, emotions are equated with mere "whims"; to allow one's judgment to be affected by emotions is tantamount to committing the horrible crime of "whim worshipping." This, of course, is an argument ad hominem with no scientific standing whatsoever.
Cognitive science has discovered that emotions play an important role in decision making:
Recent research suggests that emotions are just as influential as cognitive processes when it comes to decision making. This is interesting because emotions are often considered irrational occurrences that may distort reasoning. According to Sayegh, the conventional way of thinking about decision making is to banish emotion from its decisions entirely. According to them, the decision makers should act using a “cool head” where decisions should come only from rational and cognitive processes to obtain the best results. The implications of emotions during decision making processes have only recently been discussed in some detail. With the growing body of knowledge on emotions in decision making, researchers have proposed various theories to help further our understanding of what influences the decisions that we make.
One of the most important theories illustrating the role that emotions play in decision making is the Somatic Marker Hypothesis:
The somatic marker hypothesis is a very relevant theory when discussing emotions in decision making. It states that bioregulatory signals such as feelings and emotions provide the principal guide for decisions where individuals, when dealing with a judgement, will assess the severity of the outcomes, their probability of occurrence and their emotional quality to provide their decision. According to Dunn,“the somatic marker hypothesis proposes that ‘somatic marker’ biasing signals from the body are represented and regulated in the emotion circuitry of the brain, particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), to help regulate decision-making in situations of complexity and uncertainty”. Therefore, in situations of complexity and uncertainty, the marker signals allow the brain to recognise the situation and respond quickly.
As mentioned earlier, there is an intimate connection between emotion and cognition in practical decision making. Damasio used somatic marker hypothesis to explain how emotions are biologically indispensable to decisions. He suggested that when choosing between options that differ in relative risk, a somatic marker (for example, a “gut feeling”) feeds back to the brain and influences cognitive appraisal. Thus emotions often unwittingly form the basis of many of our decisions and the conventional belief that cognitive processes alone run our decision making processes has been disregarded. It is in fact an interplay between emotions and cognition that helps us during decision making processes.
Now whether right or wrong, at least the Somatic Marker Hypothesis has a body solid evidence that can be placed in it's favor. For example, it is found that people who, through brain damage to the VMPFC, suffer from impaired emotional faculties are incapable of making the simplest decisions. One patient was unable to choose an appointment time with his neurologist because he gave countless arguments for every time that was proposed.
If Objectivists wish their view of the role of emotions in cognition to be taken seriously, they need to (1) provide scientific evidence on behalf of their view, and (2) explain why the evidence supporting the Somatic Marker Hypothesis is not inconsistent with Rand's assertions about emotion.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Rand, alas, never provided any evidence for this assertion. Her chief disciple, Leonard Peikoff, did provide the following:
...When, as a college teacher, I would reach the topic of emotions in class, my standard procedure was to open the desk, take out a stack of examination booklets, and, without any explanations, start distributing them. Consternation invariably broke loose, with cries such as "You never said we were having a test today!" and "It isn't fair!" Whereupon I would take back the booklets and ask: "How many can explain the emotion that just swept over you? Is it an inexplicable primary, a quirk of your glands, a message from God or the id?" The answer was obvious. The booklets, to most of them, meant failure on an exam, a lower grade in the course, a blot on their transcript, i.e., bad news. On this one example, even the dullest students grasped with alacrity that emotions do have causes and that their causes are the things men think. (The auditors in the room, who do not write exams, remained calm during this experiment. To them, the surprise involved no negative value-judgment.)...
There are at least two problems with this: first, it's merely an anecdote and as such cannot be regarded as decisive on this issue; but even more critically, the anecdote doesn't establish what it claims. Even if "the dullest students grasped with alacrity that emotions" are caused by "the things men think," the reactions to the surprise exam don't establish this. Peikoff's anecdote begs the question. For the real question is not whether emotions are inexplicable or whether thinking may influence emotions, it's whether emotions are entirely the product of thinking. The Objectivist claim is that the value judgment comes first in the form of a conscious thought, and the emotion comes afterwards. But it's quite possible (and, indeed, far more consistent with the obvious evidence) that the causation is, at least in some instances, reversed: that is, that value judgment could not have taken place without a prior emotion.
Evidence for the emotion-must-comes-first view can be gleaned from many sources. Indeed, it would appear to be a fairly obvious inference from facts commonly known. Consider the following from the Aristotelian scholar Neera K. Badhwar:
The idea that the emotions have to be programmed by the intellect, whereas the intellect can choose values independently of any help from the emotions, suggests a hierarchical relationship between intellect and emotion, and a unidirectional picture of moral and psychological development. First the intellect, functioning independently of the emotional faculty, collects the data and makes value-judgments; then it programs the emotional faculty. On this picture, the preprogrammed emotional faculty is inert, unable to make any value responses, and unable to play a fundamental role in forming or aiding the intellect. [Note: Badhwar provides evidence for this view in her footnotes.]
However, if infants and young children (not to mention animals) have emotions in a pre-conceptual form -- as they surely do -- then emotions cannot be entirely dependent on the intellect. We feel fear, anger, contentment, empathy, and pleasure in a pre-conceptual form long before we acquire the capacity tomake value-judgements. Insofar as these are responses to that which we sense as somehow good or bad for us, valuable or disvaluable, it follows that we are able to make value responses long before we are able to make value-judgements. Indeed, it is only because we have this pre-conceptual ability for responding to value that we can acquire the capacity for making value-judgments. Thus, preconceptual emotions are necessary for having any more than the most primitive values in the first place, and, thereby, for making value-judgments. Adult emotions build on these pre-conceptual emotions and the value-judgments they make possible. For example, adult fear typically contains not only the components of feeling and physiological response that a child's fear does, but also the value-judgment of the feared object as dangerous or threatening. Which objects are seen as fearful depends not on the judgments of an untouched intellect, but an intellect already shaped to some extent by our preconceptual emotions, and continually influenced by, even as it in turn influences, our adult emotions.
Some Objectivists have claimed that evidence on behalf of Rand's theory of emotions has been compiled on behalf of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The assumption is that CBT=Objectivist theory of emotion. There is no reason to believe this. One of the originators and most influential advocates of CBT, Albert Ellis, wrote the first critical book on Objectivism (Is Objectivism a Religion?), and he made it quite clear that Rand's theory of emotions was simplistic and inadequate:
The virtually perfect, one-to-one relationship between our thought and emotions that Rand and Branden posit is practically nonexistent. Consequently, if they wish to remain unchallenged, their position had better be modified. An emotion tends to arise from a value response. It usually is something of an automatic psychological result of our value judgments. It has, however, other important causative factors connected with human sensing, perceiving, and acting.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
In my own review of Burns' book, I identified a number of standard Randroid responses to non-Objectivist views on Rand.
1. First, they begin with the pro forma objection that the critic is "biased" against Rand, “doesn’t understand Objectivism”, doesn't respect ideas etc. This is despite the fact that, given endless series of intellectual schisms the movement produces, that it is not clear who really does understand Objectivism in the first place.
2. Invoke the Objectivist Double Standard. This means that when Rand makes a wild, evidence-free claim or uses the most malicious, unsympathetic interpretation possible of another thinker’s work (eg Kant), this is ok because with her millennial genius she is in fact grasping the “essentials” of her opponents’ arguments. On the other hand, anyone who criticizes Rand must have read everything she ever wrote or said about anything, and allow her any concession and sympathetic interpretation demanded, no matter how obscure or unlikely.
3. Simply limn the piece in question for the hint of various Thought Crimes such as “determinism”, “pragmatism” or “subjectivism”, and then condemn the author's intellectual and moral standing due to their allegedly underlying commitment to one or all of the above.
And we should add:
4. Garnish each review with standardised ARI talking points about Rand's millennial intellectual and moral qualities and achievements, the evil of the Brandens, the evil of David Kelley, the evil of all "other intellectuals" etc.
Locke's comments admirably fulfill all of the above. Sample Randroidisms include:
"Ayn Rand took logic seriously; overwhelmingly, other intellectuals did not. This is why, as Burns says on p. 188, at a certain point it became “impossible for her to communicate with contemporaries” (e.g., modern intellectuals)."
"Aristotle tried to defend egoism, but only Ayn Rand fully validated it."
"...Ayn Rand revolutionized the field of ethics, rejected the entire Judeo-Christian moral code (altruism), replaced it with a totally unique approach to ethics..."
"The closest thing to a solution to all ills would be her entire philosophy."
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a “tendency” to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.
For nearly two-thousand years, men of thought, under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, attempted to determine matters of fact with rationalistic arguments like the one Rand provides above. It's the method Plato used to assert that the orbits of planets were circular; it was the method Hegel used to assert that the solar system can feature only seven planets; it was the method behind the practice of bleeding people when they were sick; it is the method that Augustine used to deny the existence of antipodes: it is a method that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. Matters of fact simply cannot be determined in this way. No credible scientist would ever be taken seriously if he tried to establish some controversial matter of fact using the method Rand resorts to above.
Argument 2: I'm not aware that Rand ever made this argument, but it has been made by some of her followers, and it is based on Randian constructs:
- Premise 1: A tendency to behave in a certain way is ultimately an automated value judgment
- Premise 2: Value judgments are ideas
- Premise 3: Innate ideas are impossible
- Premise 4: An innate tendency would be an innate idea
- Conclusion: Innate tendencies are impossible
The problem with this argument (besides its excessive rationalism) is that the first three premises involve controversial assertions about matters of fact which can only be settled by a detailed (meaning: scientific) examination of the relevant facts. If Rand and her followers want to be taken seriously on these points, they must (1) provide detailed evidence that there assertions are true; and (2) they must explain why the evidence provided on the opposite side of the issue by geneticists and evolutionary biologists is either irrelevant or false. Until Objectivists get around to doing this, no rational person need take their assertions on these matters seriously.
Friday, December 03, 2010
To describe this viewpoint as controversial greatly understates its tremendous reach. Were it true, it would mean that nearly every scientist in the biological and behavorial sciences, nearly every great poet, dramatist, and novelist, and all great statemen, generals, businessmen, etc. have been wrong; for nearly everyone who has ever studied, described, bargained with, dealt with, or commanded human beings has assumed that man is not a being of self-made soul, that his "soul" (or character) is a product of many factors, and that something called "human nature" most definitely exists and can be used to make generalizations concerning how human beings are likely to react to various incentives. Scientists have discovered, for example, that whether an individual is extroverted or introverted is determined by his genes. As scientists learn more about how DNA influences human character, they are discovering the extent to which a man's personality is innate (it's a rather large extent, estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 per cent). Rand's assertion that man is a being of self-made soul goes into the very teeth of this evidence. This being so, why should we take Rand's assertion seriously? On the one side, we have a veritable mountain of evidence for the belief that character, at least in some respects, is influenced by genetics. In opposition to this Rand provides us with?--nothing. Rand cites no scientific experiment, no article from a reputable scientific journal, no evidence from experimental psychology. Now how likely is it that Rand is right on this point, and thousands of much better informed scientists, scholars, historians, social scientists, statesmen, etc. are wrong?
Rand is clearly wrong: man is not a being of self-made soul. To accept the Randian nonsense is to suffer from an almost egomaniacal delusion. So why haven't Rand's disciples attempted to remedy this glaring defect in her philosophy? After all, aren't Objectivists supposed to be "objective," concerned for the truth, eager to get the facts right? Isn't that what Rand's philosophy, on its epistemological side, is all about? But no; Rand's followers have no interest in repairing this major faux pas in the Objectivist philosophy. How can they? It's one of their philosophy's chief presuppositions. Without it, the whole structure becomes wobbly, and threatens to fall. If man is not a being of self-made soul, the Objectivist philosophy of history becomes utterly untenable; some of Rand's ethical ideals, particularly her virtues of selfishness, pride, and integrity, become deeply problematic; and her politics becomes unachievable and therefore fabulous and utopian. Rand's entire project of "saving" the world depends on the notion that how a man uses his cognitive faculty ultimately determines his character; for if man has no control, whether direct or indirect, over his character, then we should expect his innate biases to influence him in the future as they have influenced him in the past. Take away Rand's extreme self-determinism, and the old rules apply once again. The conservative (or "Tragic") vision of human nature, dramatized by Sophocles and Shakespeare, limned by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, scientifically explicated by E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and other scientists, is once more vindicated.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Greg Nyquist: True. Fortunately, there is one important difference. Neither Peikoff nor ARI have nukes. If they did, well, we can only imagine the consequences. "So what brought down American civilization? How was this mighty edifice laid to waste?" "Oh, that's easy: Leonard Peikoff got the bomb."
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Two months ago I gave the lowdown on the latest schism in Objectivism. I suggested that the schism had not yet reached the level of the David Kelley split in the 1980s. In two short months we’ve reached Kelley levels and may be heading for a schism of Brandenesque proportions.
By way of background, it should be noted that Leonard Peikoff is not on the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and does not appear to have the legal authority to veto its decisions. Rather, as the heir of Rand’s estate, the owner of her copyrights and the owner of her papers, a decision by Peikoff to separate from the ARI would probably hamper its day to day operations if not require its dissolution.
On October 24, Diana Hsieh published her evaluation of the McCaskey schism. Hsieh, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is the most prominent Objectivist blogger and podcaster. She is an interesting character. A long-time Objectivist, she was for ten years a supporter of David Kelley’s the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Center). She was no admirer of Leonard Peikoff, criticizing his magnum opus Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) and alleging that Peikoff lied in claiming Rand designated him her “intellectual heir.”
In 2004, however, Hsieh had a conversion experience to orthodox Objectivism in which all her previous criticism of the ARI and Leonard Peikoff suddenly became “inoperative.” In order to make up for lost time, she launched numerous attacks on the “false friends” of Objectivism. These included not just the usual suspects such as David Kelley and the Brandens, but her old friend Chris Sciabarra. Sciabarra is particularly loathed in ARI circles for his work Ayn Rand the Russian Radical, a book which puts Rand in historical context. In 2006, Hsieh, using private emails from Sciabarra without his permission, wrote a nasty hit piece. She repudiated her previous work. Leonard Peikoff now became a god in Hsieh’s eyes, even endorsing his 2006 fatwa on the moral obligation to vote for the Democratic Party.
Hsieh’s attempt to become Objectivism’s avenging angel worked, at least for a time. In a 2009 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said he respected her work. However, in June 2010 she disagreed (as did many Objectivists) with Peikoff’s contention that Moslems did not have the right to build and Islamic Community Center (which contained a mosque) near “ground zero” in New York City. (This was a dangerous position to take because Peikoff, as with the 2006 voting fatwa, had equated his position with Objectivism as such.) Nonetheless, she tried to be as respectful as possible to Peikoff, urging Objectivists not pester the Grand Old Man at the summer Objectivist Conference. Curiously, Hsieh reported, in September, that her proposal for a lecture at the 2011 ARI-sponsored Objectivist Conference (OCON) was rejected.
In preparation for her October 24 piece on the McCaskey schism, Hsieh wrote a couple letters to Peikoff asking for clarification concerning his now notorious email which, she said, “looked very bad on its face.” Peikoff did not respond or acknowledge the emails. She also spoke to McCaskey and ARI president Yaron Brook to get their side of the story. The most interesting bit of information in Hsieh’s piece was a letter that David Harriman sent to Hsieh’s husband, Paul (a medical doctor).
Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM
From: DAVID HARRIMAN
To: Paul Hsieh
Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey's criticisms of your book?
I don't think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.
Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.
I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.
McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by "free fall" (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of "inertia," "acceleration," and "momentum." In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?
In short, I ask you which is more believable -- that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between "impetus" and "momentum," or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?
A favorite pastime among academics today is to find "feet of clay" in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.
Of course contempt for academics and the claim that all non-Objectivists are “Kantians” is vintage Peikoff. And who needs expertise in the history of science to evaluate a book on the history of science when a little “thinking in essentials” will do the trick?
Hsieh’s piece generated lots of comments. The most interesting was from physicist Travis Norsen, who revealed that he had been critical of the Harriman book for quite some time, resulting in a “cooling” of his relationship with the ARI:
Now, ironically, during this same period, a dear friend convinced me to consider trying one last time to submit an OCON course proposal; in particular I was assured that, this time, such a proposal would receive a fair hearing. So, despite doubting that a proposal by me could possibly be accepted, I did end up submitting something. To my pleasure and surprise, it was accepted, and so I was slated to teach a course at the summer 2007 conference (in Colorado). But then, a couple months later (in December of 2006), I was informed by ARI that they were withdrawing the invitation for me to speak, based on the “views on induction generally and on Dr. Peikoff’s lectures more specifically” that I had posted here.
Norsen also reported that he was told that the ARI had need for only one lecturer on physics, and that was David Harriman.
Hsieh didn’t reach many conclusions in her piece, claiming that there wasn’t enough information available to determine just what Peikoff was up to in his “moral condemnation” of McCaskey. Trying not to get into too much trouble, she urged everyone to be understanding of Peikoff and acknowledge his contributions to Objectivism. Finally, the Hsiehs produced a lengthy, deeply confused no-comment post which alternates between plaintive mea culpa and self-justifying blather "Closing Thoughts On ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey", and from which no clear statement on anything at all can be extracted. It really reads like the gyrations of two apparatchiks trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing.
If Hsieh’s failure to support Peikoff 100% was surprising, things got even more surprising a couple weeks later when, on October 29, Craig Biddle attacked Peikoff for his “nonobjective” and “unjust” attack on McCaskey. Biddle publishes The Objective Standard (TOS), an Objectivist magazine that publishes only orthodox Objectivists and has close ties to the ARI. McCaskey is on the masthead along with ARI president Yaron Brook. TOS had published excerpts from Harriman’s book. You’d think Biddle would be the last person to turn on Peikoff. Just a few weeks previous Biddle published a fawning review of James Valliant’s now debunked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, even though it is out of print and orthodox Objectivists such as Hsieh have long stopped mentioning it. In his 2002 book Loving Life he called OPAR “one of the most important books ever written.”
Biddle removed Brook from the masthead of TOS, duly noting that he respects Brooks and does not want to sever ties with ARI writers. Lot of good that did him, because the next day he posted on Face Book that the ARI had cancelled his speaking engagements at several universities.
By now people were asking lots of questions, in particular students at the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), a graduate program run by the ARI. Perhaps fearing that a decision by Peikoff to take his marbles and go home would result in OAC becoming another Founders College, they demanded a conference call with the ARI, which apparently took place in early November. The call was confidential.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Peikoff returned from on high on November 5 to settle scores. First he denounced McCaskey. Lest there are any doubts, he said was morally condemning McCaskey. (This had been disputed by certain Objectivists, apparently forgetting that virtually every condemnation is moral in Peikoff’s eyes).
Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual. Had I held a more positive estimate, I would have attempted first of all not to demand his resignation, but to discuss the book with him, understand his viewpoint, and see if together we could resolve and/or delimit his problems with it. But given my opinion of him, intellectual discussion was impossible to me.
Next, he reminded people that as the one who allegedly best understands Objectivism, he is entitled to trump any decision of the ARI, notwithstanding the fact that he is not even on its Board of Directors.
Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions and where the line is to be drawn. 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. (I have retired from books, classes, and official position, but not from perception and evaluation.)
Next, he pointed out that he is on terms of “personal enmity” with “a few” Board members and doesn’t speak to them. Since there are eight Board members, Peikoff apparently isn’t on speaking terms with at least 40% of the Board.
Finally, in case anyone was wondering against whom Peikoff was directing his invective, he closed with “if . . . my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.”
By now things had reached critical mass. With a “sizeable faction” of ARI supporters having questions about what little amount of intellectual freedom remains in orthodox Objectivism and a possible fall-off of contributions to the ARI, Yaron Brook decided to speak. The upshot of Brook’s press release is that Peikoff threatened to walk away from the ARI and the Board caved.
The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations
I won’t go into the details of Brook’s statement, which was brilliantly dissected by one “Saul” on Diana Hsieh’s blog. Of note, however, is that Brook does not say whether he considers Peikoff’s criticisms of McCaskey’s person (an obnoxious braggart and ignoramus) appropriate in light of McCaskey’s years of devotion to the ARI. Most importantly, we are never told why McCaskey had a “conflict of interest” as a Board member because he is unable to support the ARI-sponsored The Logical Leap. Is McCaskey obligated to support a work that is, at most, an extension of Objectivism? I don’t get the impression that McCaskey was out to publicly “trash” The Logical Leap. Rather it looks like he intended on keeping his criticism private.
We now have more information about this schism, although there is a great deal we don’t know. Most importantly we know that Peikoff’s denunciation of McCaskey is the culmination of his attempt to make David Harriman the official Objectivist expert on physics and science, notwithstanding his eccentric view on relativity theory and some other matters. In my initial piece I raised the suspicion that Peikoff’s anger might have something to do with the Archives granting access to Jennifer Burns for her critical biography of Rand. I thought that ARI supporters might be angry over Burns’ revelation that the ARI, apparently at Peikoff’s direction or at least consent, has rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. That doesn’t appear to have been a factor.
The McCaskey schism is the logical culmination of Peikovianism. When Peikoff excommunicated David Kelley he implicitly put his interpretation of Objectivism on par with Rand’s stated positions. This was made explicit in the 2006 Fatwa and the New York City Mosque podcast. Now with the McCaskey auto-da-fe Peikoff has made his extension of Objectivism into an area on which Rand wrote nothing as much a part of Objectivism as anything that Rand wrote. If the DIM Hypothesis ever appears will Objectivists be free to express the mildest disagreements?
There are Objectivists who sincerely believe that Rand could not possibly be guilty of empirical irresponsibility, because that would go against her epistemological principles, particularly her insistence that “man’s mind” was in contact with reality. But such objections are nothing to the purpose. Rand can talk about connecting concepts to reality as much as she likes; the question is not what she claims to do, but what she actually does. And too often, she proceeds far too carelessly when making claims about matters of fact. Below is a list of thirty-one assertions made by Rand (and two by Peikoff) which are not supported by sufficient evidence:
- “Man is a being of self-made soul.”
- Human beings have no innate tendencies.
- Emotions are automatized value judgments.
- “Emotions are not tools of cognition”.
- The conscious mind “programs” the subconscious mind.
- “If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character.”
- A “ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection” yielding a “conceptual identification of your inner states” allows one to discover the sources of one’s emotions.
- “An emotion that clashes with your reason is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.”
- “Man’s values control his subconscious emotional mechanism that functions like a computer adding up his desires, his experiences, his fulfillments and frustrations.”
- “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge.”
- “Logic is man’s method of cognition” (Peikoff, ITOE)
- “The alternative to reason is some form of mysticism or skepticism.” (Peikoff, OP)
- “To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.”
- “There has never been a philosophy, a theory or a doctrine that attacked (or “limited”) reason, which did not also preach submission to the power of some authority.”
- None of the traditional theories of concepts regards concepts as objective
- “Definitions preserve ... the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence.”
- “Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.”
- “The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process.”
- An animal cannot perform a process of abstraction.
- “The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.”
- “The battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who … are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence.”
- “Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.”
- The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality.
- “[Intellectual appeasement] is an attempt to apologize for his intellectual concerns and to escape from the loneliness of a thinker by professing that his thinking is dedicated to some social-altruistic goal.”
- “Tribalism is … a logical consequence of modern philosophy.”
- “Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think.”
- “Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love.”
- “Humility is not a recognition of one’s failings, but a rejection of morality.”
- “Man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t.”
- “All the evils, abuses, and iniquities, popularly ascribed to businessmen and to capitalism, were not caused by an unregulated economy or by a free market, but by government intervention into the economy.”
- “A ‘mixed economy’ is a society in the process of committing suicide.”
Three warnings before we commence. First, many of these statements could be interpreted analytically, so that they become irrefutable. For example, Rand apologists could arbitrarily declare that any human being who is not "a being of self-made soul" is not a man. But while this procedure allows Rand’s statements to evade empirical refutation, they have the disadvantage of rendering those statements into propositions about how Rand uses words, rather than propositions about reality.
All the statements listed above, if they are to be taken seriously as accurate descriptions of reality, must be empirically testable. This consideration leads to my second warning, which has to do with the indistinct terms in which many of Rand’s statements are couched. Despite (or perhaps because) of Rand’s mania for definitions, Rand frequently makes use of vague words and expressions, which leave her ample opportunity to use ambiguity to equivocate to whatever conclusions she wishes. This egregious procedure leads to endless quarrels about Rand’s meaning, with Rand’s apologists constantly complaining that her critics are intentionally distorting her message. Yet all these issues stem from Rand herself. If a philosopher doesn’t wish to be misunderstood, he should stop using vague terms. And nothing could be more to the purpose, if a philosopher wishes to be understood, then carefully framing his contentions in clear, distinct, empirically testable propositions.
One final warning: the primary contention at issue in this series is not whether the thirty-one statements listed above are false (many of them are, but some of them may have an element of truth in them), but that Rand fails to provide sufficient evidence for them. This point is the decisive one, yet it’s entirely lost on far too many Objectivists, as the recent Anthemgate fiasco has illustrated in spades. It’s as if they simply don’t care about empirical responsibility. This is, I suspect, partially a legacy of Rand’s own empirical irresponsibility. It is not always what Rand said, but how she acted, that has proved most influential.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
In the latest Objectischism, there exists a conflict of interests between Leonard Peikoff and John McCaskey. The fact that such a conflict exists at all indicates that one (if not both) of the parties are "irrational." Indeed, the fact that conflicts exist within orthodox Objectivism -- conflicts so intense and irresolvable that they can only be ended by one of the parties exiting the scene -- suggests something profoundly amiss. If individuals passionately devoted to Rand's philosophy of "reason" and "reality" are incapable of resolving their differences "rationally," what hope is there for the rest of us?
The philosophical problem at the base of the issue stems from Rand's conception of "reason." I have suggested in previous posts on this blog that "reason" is a mythical faculty. None of its champions have ever provided empirical evidence demonstrating it's reported efficacy. It's merely a term used by those seeking to justify contentions based on insufficient evidence. Human discourse is most efficacious when it is subjected to rigorous testing, whether scientific or practical. The best justification for an idea or theory is that it works in empirical reality. Seeking justification for a theory in "reason" is merely an invitation for rationalization, which is the bane of rational inquiry.
Now if Objectivist "reason" were everything it is cracked up to be, we would expect to find evidence of this in the lives of Objectivists. Nothing could be more to the purpose along these lines then an empirical examination of how reason works to solve disputes within an organization run by leading Objectivists. Rand believed in the existence of an objective reality that could be understood by "reason." Rand insisted that, despite man's fallibility, anyone using "reason" could arrive at true and even "certain" conclusions. As a consequence of this, rational men (i.e., men using "reason"), assuming they had access to the same information, would always arrive at the same conclusions. This, incidentally, provides a rationale for why there are no conflicts among "rational" men. Since reason inevitably leads to the same conclusion, rational men will always find themselves on the same page. Differences of opinion can be settled by "reasoned" discussion.
So how does this theory work in practice? Obviously, if ARI is our test case, it doesn't work at all. Peikoff admits, for example, that "Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions [on the ARI board] and where the line is to be drawn." Someone has to decide? Shouldn't "reason" decide? Since reality is objective and "reason" the only "valid" means of knowing reality, what need is there for an individual to decide these things at all? Shouldn't a committee of rational men do just as well? But no, of course not; even Leonard Peikoff understands that a committee of rational men would not do at all. Peikoff is right to insist that someone must decide, that hierarchical leadership is necessary even among Objectivists. This suggests that "reason" is not all it's cracked up to be. Why should this be so? What is wrong with the Objectivist conception of "reason"?
(1) Differing "context" of knowledge among men. Within the Objectivist ideology, the idea of context is used as a kind of conceptual escape hatch to explain, for instance, why a moral absolute may not apply in all instances (because moral absolutes are "contextual") or why an individual may be certain yet wrong (because certainty is "contextual"). It could also be used to explain why hierarchical leadership based on "authority" is necessary even for Objectivists. Since individuals have differing "contexts of knowledge," they will not always arrive at the same conclusions. While their conclusions, if backed by all the evidence within the "context of their knowledge," will be "certain," they won't be identical. Those with a wider context of knowledge will (presumably) achieve a higher level of "certainty." They will know more and will hence be in a better position to make rational decisions.
So far so good. But if this line of reasoning is accepted, it creates problems in other areas of Objectivism. If differing contexts of knowledge cause rational men to arrive at different conclusions, then Rand's contention about "no conflicts of interest" among rational men must be dropped. Here is yet another example of Rand and her disciples failing to consider all the implications of a specific doctrine. Since a rational man's interests must, according to Rand, be discovered through "reason," and since knowledge is contextual, the conclusions that a man reaches concerning the interests of himself and others (including organizations like ARI) will depend on the context of his knowledge. Different contexts lead to different assessments of interests, even among rational men; and differing assessment of interests will inevitably lead to conflicts.
2. Interests are fundamentally non-rational. Rand's conviction that there exists such a thing as "rational" interests, discoverable by "reason," is incoherent and poorly thought out. Neither Rand nor any of her disciples have ever provided us with a detailed description of how to distinguish a rational interest from a non-rational interest. If we go by Objectivist writings, a "rational" interest is merely any interest that Rand and her disciples approve of, while a non-rational (or "irrational") interest is an any interest they disapprove of.
The problem here is insoluable on Objectivist premises. That's because interests are fundamentally emotive in nature. While emotions are not the sole arbiters of an individual's interest, they do provide data essential for developing an intelligent appreciation of what these interests might be. An interest must be rooted in some natural need or desire if it is to be an interest at all. An interest that satisfied no need or desire, but was entirely independent of the affective system, would be an imposition rather than an interest. To pursue interests that satisfy no natural need is to act contrary to nature.
Now it just so happens that human nature is not homogeneous. The natural needs of men differ from one individual to another. Worse, some needs (such as the need for status) cannot be harmonized within a social system (i.e., Paul's need for status cannot be completely harmonized with Peter's need for status). Conflict of interests are therefore a built-in feature of the human condition. To deny this is to live in fairy-tale world.
What perhaps shocked rank-and-file Objectivists more than anything else in Peikoff's now infamous email is where he wrote, "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism." Objectivists are not supposed to be concerned with status. It is a product of that horror or horrors, social metaphysics. It reeks of authoritarianism and the appeal to faith. Yet status can no more be exorcised from man's "emotional mechanism" than sex or hunger can. To deny or evade it merely serves to make it more poisonous, since what is repressed cannot be forthrightly combatted or rechanneled.
Rivalries of status and pre-eminence do exist within the Objectivist community. Of course, no self-respecting Objectivist could ever admit this; so the fact itself must be repressed, which in turn leads to rationalization on an immense scale. When intellectuals rationalize their desires, a duality of meaning develops within their thought. Everything they think or say has a "formal" and a "real" meaning. The "formal" meaning is the literal, conscious meaning; it's the rationalized meaning, meant to persuade and deceive both the rationalizer and his audience. The "real" meaning accords with the unconscious motives that are prompting the whole business.
So if an aspiring Objectivist came out and said, "I'm supporting Peikoff because I think it will further my career as an Objectivist spokeman," he would ruin any chances of achieving the object of his ambition. Hence the need of concealing one's real motives. The trouble here is that human beings are pretty good at detecting this sort of insincerity. It's not enough to conceal one's motives; one must also believe in the "truth" of one's deception. In short, one must accept one's own lies and become, if you will, a sincere hypocrit.
Once this dynamic is in full play, any claims about "reason," logic, or reasoned discourse must be treated with the utmost suspicion. When people are forced to repress and conceal their true motives under a veneer of logic, rationalization becomes the order of the day. Hence the fanaticism and irrationality one detects in so many orthodox Objectivists. Hence their inability to engage in reasoned discourse with those who disagree with them. Hence their inability to even understand, let alone refute, their critics. Hence their inability to use "reason" to resolve differences among themselves.
3. Rand provided no "technology" for "reason." In Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand," we run across the following observation: "So here in Ayn Rand’s work is an ethical philosophy with a great vision of human possibilities, but no technology to help people get there..." This absence of a "technology" doesn't only afflict Rand's ethics; it is a problem with Rand's epistemology, particularly in relation to her much ballyhooed "reason." Rand actually never bothers to explain, in a clear, detailed, empirically testable fashion, how one goes about using "reason." About as detailed as she gets is the following:
In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective.
I will provide a more detailed explanation of what is wrong with this when I get around to doing my "Objectivism and Epistemology" series. For our present purposes, I will merely note that Rand's inclusion of concept-formation in her conception of reason is deeply problematical. Concept-formation is an extremely complex process involving unconscious process that cannot be directed by the conscious mind. For this reason, no articulable, formalized technique can ever be devised to control or direct, let alone even describe, the process of concept-formation. But without an articulable, formalized technique, reason cannot be "followed." Unconscious processes can at best be "evoked" by the conscious mind; they can't be controlled or directed, since the individual cannot control what is beyond the range of sentience. Rand's "reason" is therefore mythical. No such technique exists or is possible. What is possible, instead, is rational and empirical criticism. While we cannot direct the process by which conclusions are formed, we can test such conclusions, once they become availabe to the conscious mind. Empirical testing and rational criticism therefore constitute the chief ingredients of rationality, not concept-formation or "reason."
"Reason" being mythical, any attempt to resolve differences among men (whether they are "rational" or not) via "reason" must come to grief. Hence the necessity within the Objectivist movement of an authority based on "status" who can settle the conflicts which, in the absence of an objective arbiter, will inevitably arise among Objectivists. If Leonard Peikoff did not exist, Objectivists would be forced to invent him. Without a central authority, Objectivism would splinter into hundreds of fragments, each claiming to follow "reason" and crying anathema on all other fragments. The Objectivist movement, precisely because it follows "reason," which is entirely mythical faculty, must be authoritarian at its core. It cannot exist on any other basis.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
(1) The Objectivist theory of history
(2) The Objectivist concept of "reason"
(3) The Problem of Induction
Since Daniel has already covered No. 3, that leaves us with the first two. In this post I'll cover No. 1.
The Objectivist theory of history. Since the past cannot be changed, factual claims about the motive forces in history cannot be tested experimentally. Without experimental tests, history becomes a breeding ground for dubious theories. Individuals lacking detailed knowledge of history and insight into human nature can make assertions which, however implausible they may appear to the wise, cannot be decisively refuted. One such theory is the Objectivist "philosophy of history," which claims that the course of history is largely governed by broad philosophical abstractions devised by mankind's "greatest" philosophers (namely, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand). Rand's theory serves two main purposes: (1) to explain why Rand's philosophy (or the equivalent thereof) did not prevail in the past; and (2) to explain why Rand's philosophy will likely prevail (i.e., dominate the culture) in the future. Explaining these things is important for a palpably simple reason. The very fact that Rand's political and ethical preferences have not fared well in the past would seem to constitute evidence that they are not likely to fare well in the future. Throughout human history, selfishness has usually been regarded with suspicion, whereas sacrificing oneself for the good of the community has always received the highest encomiums. Nor have we ever seen, on any significant scale, Rand's "laissez-faire" capitalism. Given these uninspiring facts, what reason could a sane person possibly entertain for believing that "rational" selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism will take hold at any time in the future?
Rand tries to solve these problems by asserting that the failure of self-interest and laissez-faire ultimately stems from a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty," itself a product of the failure of modern philosphers to solve the "problem of universals." Now there happens to be virtually no credible reasons (or evidence) for believing any of this to be true. Historically, the problem of universals was a metaphysical rather than an epistemological problem, and most modern (i.e., post-scholastic) philosophers paid little attention to it. Nor is it quite accurate to claim that modern philosophers were engaged in a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty." A great deal of fudging, distortion, and outright malicious interpretation were required to make Hume, Hegel, and Kant the great villians of the Objectivist narrative. While such intellectual malfeasance would hardly stir the conscience of the typical diehard orthodox Objectivist (who, after all, was largely ignorant of philosophy and whose concern about matters of fact and fair play had long ago been debauched by his commitment to to the Randian creed), with men of greater knowledge and integrity, things would fare otherwise. The Objectivist caricatures of great philosophers constituted a major intellectual embarrassment which made Rand's philosophy a tough sell, even among those scholars who might otherwise have been inclined to give it a place at the academic trough. Typical, in this regard, is Gary Merrill's take on Rand:
These sorts of things [i.e., examples of Rand's shoddy scholarship] would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell [about "kinda" of knowing the concept of number], for example. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down.
So what is it that differentiates the writing of Rand from those of classic academics and professional philosophers? It is simply that her work has every appearance of an extended and multi-faceted straw man argument that fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship. It has all the marks of what in science would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.
Now fortunately for orthodox Objectivism, academic philosophers are so busy arguing among themselves that it is still possible for the stray Objectivist to scatch and claw his way into a professorship. But matters fare otherwise within the hard sciences, where experiment and exacting scholarship still hold sway and a consensus based on tried and true methods is still possible. All sorts of eccentricities may be ignored or even tolerated within philosophy and the "philosophy of history," but in physics more exacting standards are applied. Objectivism's shoddy scholarship -- its egregious tendency to make extravagently controversial claims based either on bad evidence or no evidence -- is bound to attract unfavorable attention.
Now one of the principle doctrines of the Objectivist theory of history is that the influence of Kant, as long as it remains unchallenged, must eventually eat away like a cancer nearly everything within the culture, including science. Rand and her disciples, afflicted with the sort of monomaniacal confirmation bias that tends to govern most ideologues, were ever vigilant for even the most negligible "evidence" of Kant's irrationality nibbling away at the host organism. Because 20th century physics didn't exactly line up into neat and tidy categories suggested by common sense and the Objectivist axioms, Rand viewed it with suspicion. Many of the leading theories and concepts in physics were couched in terms calculated to arouse Rand's ire, such as Theory of Relativity, Uncertainty Principle, observer effect, wave-particle duality, etc. Such terms suggested a discipline awash in the horrors of Kantian subjectivity. An exorcism, involving rigorous Objectivist criticism, seemed called for. But there were no Objectivists up to the task, none having the requisite "expertise" in physics -- none, that is, until David Harriman arrived on the scene. Harriman was everything Peikoff, now occupying the Objectivist throne, could have wished for. Harriman (allegedly) had worked as a physicist for the U.S. Department of Defense and taught philosophy at California State University San Bernadino. He was a clever and amusing lecturer. To people ignorant of physics, he seemed to know what he was talking about. And even better, he eagerly embraced Rand's and Peikoff's suspicions about physics and began formulating specious rationalizations for them. It was a match made in Objectivist heaven. It would now be possible to devise an Objectivist philosophy of science to do battle for truth, justice, and the Randian way. The Kantian demons could at last be excorcised from physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics could be made safe for an Objectivist metaphysics, and the Objectivist salvation of the world could proceed without concerns about a rearguard action from academic physicists. But alas, it was not to be. There were vipers in the very bosom of ARI uttering heretical murmurs concerning Harriman's shoddy scholarship. Someone would have to go; and that someone wasn't going to be either Harriman or Peikoff.
At the core of Objectivism there has long been a tension between Rand's pretense to rationality and reason and some of her fundamental beliefs, which are neither rational nor in line with the best scientific evidence. Among the Objectivist faithful, there exists a genuine admiration of hard science, which is regarded as an exemplar of "reason," that holy of holies within the Objectivist ideology. There even existed a few (though not many) Objectivists qualified to pronounce on experimental science, including a member of the ARI board, Dr. John P. McCaskey of Stanford's History and Philosophy of Science Program. McCaskey could not help noticing errors in Harriman's scholarship, and, perhaps fearing the scorn which such errors would evoke among his academic colleagues, he tried to bring them to Harriman's attention. But Harriman, secure in his position with Peikoff, would have none of it. McCaskey's minor grumblings were exaggerated, in the usual molehills-into-mountains Objectivist fashion, into one of the great intellectual crimes of the century.
Now all of this could have been contained within the discreet boundaries of a minor scandal were it not for one extraordinary oversight. As part of McCaskey's agreement to resign, Peikoff consented to release the email containing his infamous "someone has to go" ultimatum to ARI's legal department. Nothing demonstrates more vividly the gargantuan size of Peikoff's hubris then the carelessness by which this incendiary missive was allowed to see the light of public scrutiny. In releasing the email, Peikoff placed ARI and it's band of loyal followers in a terribly awkward position. What makes the email particularly hard to swallow for the Objectivist faithful was its blatantly irrational appeal to naked authority and its contempt for rational discourse. Peikoff expected to be obeyed unconditionally because of his "status" within the Objectivist community. "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism," he complained in the email. "If only we could forget who Peikoff is!" many an Objectivist undoubtedly sighed on reading that email. Peikoff had become an embarrassment difficult to ignore or evade, like the eccentric relative who comes bolting out of the attic at the most inopportune moments.
Yet although most of the consternation arising among the rank and file is over Peikoff's email, the real problem is more intractable. It is a deep rooted conflict between Objectivism and science. Objectivists have for years been sedulously evading this conflict with one ideological makeshift or another. But as a consequence of the Objectivist mania for infiltrating academia, at some point open conflict was inevitable.
In 1982, Leonard Peikoff, responding to a question about what it would take for Objectivism win, responded: "The teaching of courses on Objectivism at Harvard and Yale. After that, it is just a matter of more courses in other places. But that is the end of the battle. From that point on, it's a process of enjoying the triumph and seeing it take hold in art and in politics." With Rand's death, placing Objectivists in academic positions became Objectivism's grand strategy for taking over the culture. But the problem is that once an Objectivist manages (often against great odds) to secure an academic position, he finds himself beholden to two masters. On the one hand, he must remain ideological pure in the eyes of the Objectivist cognescenti over at ARI, and on the other, he must maintain a facade of professorial respectability among his colleagues within academia. In disciplines where no strict consensus holds sway, this may not be so very difficult; but in the hard sciences, challenging the consensus on the basis of poor or non-existent scholarship is rarely tolerated.
We see this dynamic in full play in Alan Gotthelf's five star review of Harriman's The Logical Leap over at amazon.com. "Though I can't speak personally for the full accuracy of the historical accounts," Gotthelf writes, "they are essentialized with great skill, and lucidly presented." Note how Gotthelf hedges his bets: he refuses to endorse the "full accuracy" of Harriman's historical "evidence." Gotthelf finds himself in the unenviable position of being beholden to two masters with conflicting agendas. How can he serve both without alienating one or the other?
As long as Objectivism continues to hold to its bosom positions about human nature and history that run foul of experimental psychology and historical scholarship, these rifts will continue to widen. There's no escaping it. Yet there is another problem that may prove, in the end, even more intractable. Objectivism has no way of rationally settling conflicts that arise among its denizens. This subject I will explore in my next post.