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.

There is actually very little difference between the rationalist and the rationalizer. While it is possible to imagine a rationalist who is not a rationalizer, all rationalizers are rationalists. The method of the rationalist is, par excellence, the method of the rationalizer. The rationalizer seeks to justify a given belief. The conclusion is predetermined, and reasons are added merely to add a veneer of logical justification to the non-rational conclusion. The method of rationalism makes use of vague, empirically impoverished generalizations for three primary reasons: (1) to avoid grappling with pesky details which may upend the predetermined conclusions; (2) to hide a lack of expertise in the subject at hand; and (3) to provide ample wiggle room for equivocation.

Objectivism is officially and theoretically opposed to rationalism. Rationalists are guilty of using what Objectivists refer to as "floating" abstractions. A floating abstraction is a concept that doesn't stand for anything in reality. You might think that concepts such as griffen, phlogiston, wookie might qualify as floating abstractions; but this is not what Rand had in mind. The notion of floating abstraction only makes sense under the Objectivist assumption that concepts have "true" meanings which contain all the existents which they integrate. Floating abstractions are essentially "true" (or, rather, "valid") concepts which don't, however, contain all the existents which they integrate. The floating abstraction doesn't refer to everything that is subsumed under it, because the person who uses it hasn't formed it properly. The individual who makes use of floating abstractions fails to understand precisely what these abstractions refer to in reality. Like the parrot, he uses words without understanding their meanings.

If the notion of floating abstraction was introduced to describe and do battle against rationalism, it's a signal failure. The problem with rationalists is not that they don't understand the meanings of the terms they use, but that they resort to terms that are too general to bear the weight of their contentions. They use the vagueness of terms to conceal their empirical irresponsibility.

That rationalists are guilty of using the vagueness of overly general, "abstract" terms to defend their various positions should be obvious to anyone who has examined, with a critical eye, rationalism in practice. Even Objectivists have noticed this. "A rationalist is all in favor of abstractions," notes Leonard Peikoff. "He likes broad abstractions. And to that extent, he has great virtue." [Understanding Objectivism, Lecture 7] What is particularly interesting is that, even though Peikoff connects rationalism with "broad abstractions," he doesn't grasp why this is a problem. On the contrary, he describes liking broad abstractions as a "great virtue." What is going on here? Why would Objectivism, which declares itself an enemy of rationalism, be praising one of the chief defects of the rationalist?

The answer is actually very simple: Objectivism approves of broad abstractions because Objectivism, at its core, is a rationalist philosophy. It may oppose rationalism in theory; but in practice, it loves to use "broad abstractions" to reach predetermined conclusions. Curiously, in the same lecture, Peikoff trots out Leibniz's rationalist argument in favor of monads as an example of rationalism. The Leibniz argument essentially is of the same type that is familiar in the Objectivist metaphysics: it's an attempt to determine matters of fact on the basis of logical deductions from broad abstractions. Why should Peikoff reject arguments based on broad abstractions when used by Leibniz, but not when used by Rand?

Objectivists circumvent this difficulty by simply declaring that their abstractions, however broad, are "true" of reality, while Leibniz's abstractions "float" and are "detached". In other words, broad abstractions are fine when used by Rand to justify her own predetermined conclusions; they are "floating abstractions," cut off from reality, when used to justify anyone else's conclusions, predetermined or otherwise.

The real problem with broad abstractions is that they don't convey enough information. Although their meanings are precise enough, their reference, because it applies to so many different things, is not exact enough. Objectivism, with its unit economy, should have understood this. But Rand's penchant for rationalist arguments seems to have led her to deny the referential vagueness of overly general terms:

A widespread error ... holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content -- on the grounds that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized than the distinguishing characteristics of its constiuent concepts. The error lies in assuming that a concept is nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. But the fact is that in the process of abstracting from abstractions, one cannot  know what is a distinguishing characteristic unless one has observed other characteristics of the units involved and of the existents from which they are differentiated....

To grasp a concept is to grasp, and, in part, to retrace the process by which it was formed. To retrace that process is to grasp at least some of the units which it subsumes [26-27]

Rand contends that, as long as concepts are formed "properly" (i.e., in the Objectivist way), broad abstractions do not in fact contain less "cognitive content." But this misses the point. Indeed, Rand's argument here is based on an error. Concepts do not contain information. A concept is a meaning, an item of description. By itself, it contains no information. To be sure, when  used in propositions, concepts can help convey information. Even then, the information conveyed is not necessarily "cognitive" (in the sense of conveying knowledge about matters of fact). As I have repeatedly noted throughout this series on the Objectivist Epistemology, concepts can be used to describe truth and falsehood, fact or fiction, hypothesis or dogma. The truth or falsity of a proposition does not arise from the truth or falsity of the concepts used in that proposition.

Essentially, Rand argues that vagueness in terms is caused by lack of precision in definitions, which in turn is caused by improper concept formation. This is completely wrong. Vagueness in terms is caused by insufficient specificity: when the term used is too broad for the purposes at hand, vagueness results. Precision of meaning has nothing to do with the issue, nor will providing a more "precise" meaning render a broad abstraction less vague. Consider the following two propositions:

  1. I went to the zoo and saw the animals.
  2. I went to the zoo and saw red pandas, flamingos, crested screamers, jaks, rheas, and a golden pheasant.

Which statement is less vague, more presise? Obviously, the second statement is more precise. It contains more information; it describes more precisely  what is meant by "animal" in the first statement. Where did the precision come from? From more precise or "truer" definitions? No, the suggestion is absurd. You do not increase precision by increasing the precision of your definitions (or making them more "correct" or "true"); you increase it by using more specific, less general terms.

Rand admits that knowledge involves condensation. However, she refuses to admit that this condensation has trade-offs. She suggests that you can condense without losing anything. But this just isn't true. With greater condensation comes greater vagueness. More general terms, when used as items of description, are more vague. Precision is increased, not through more "precise" definitions and/or "proper" concept formation, but by using more specific terms.


QuantumHaecceity said...

Looks like ol Greggy is feeling a bit ignored. He made another attack only 5 days after the last one.

Which is much shorter than usual. And seeing as how, at the time of me writing this, not one comment has been placed on that post, it's like ol Greggy Nyquist is feeling unappreciated by his cult of sycophants who kiss his behind over his non-stop Rand and Objectivism bashing, that's been going on for an astounding 8 years.

Look Greggy, while you're busy unrelentingly tearing down the only robust and complete Atheist Philosophy, like you're possessed by some Christian or Theistic demon, if you want your little cult of sychophants that include Daniel Barnes, Jzero and Gordon Burkowski, to give you some "at a boy's", you need to include more ranting about Objectivism being a cult, and of course, your childish schadenfreude over the failure of the Atlas Shrugged movie, and more petty, female like catty gossiping about Objectivist schisms.

Maybe that way, you can get ol sychophants back like Michael Prescott, so he can once again tell you how deeply indebted he is to you.

Lloyd Flack said...

Nothing but insults. No actual arguments or criticism.

Dragonfly said...

@Lloyd Flack: what else can you expect from an Objectivist?

Jzero said...

Actually, Quantty, in order to get a chorus of positive comments, Nyquist doesn't have to do anything except let you come in here and be the ignorant shit-talker.

Sure, I agree with most of Nyquist's points, but I don't feel a need to comment when I think something's been said clearly and the point has been made well.

However, when someone like yourself comes in to be sneering and condescending - and nothing else besides, you haven't actually refuted any points - it becomes worth my time to point out just what an empty bag of gas you are.

You say it's an "attack", but you don't really define just how it is an attack. Is simply disagreeing considered an attack? If Objectivism suffers from faulty reasoning, is it an attack to point out where and how it does so? Does this not mean that Objectivism becomes not, as claimed, rooted in the facts of the world as they are, but dependent on holding rigidly onto ideology regardless of any real-world fact that contradicts it?

But of course you can't or won't answer that, you'll harp on about how it's so mean of Nyquist to be "tearing down" Objectivism. If Objectivsm was so "robust" it could withstand anything Nyquist could throw at it and more, one would think. But no, you're worried that someone's going to take it away somehow - as if by exposing Objectivism's flaws, that would force people to not be atheists or become liberal or whatever the hell it is that has you perturbed enough that you keep coming back to carp about it.

What are you so afraid of?

If it's so astonishing that the ARCHN blog has been going on for 8 years, how much more astonishing that Rand's efforts to blast apart the parts of society she despised went on for much of her life and continue decades after her death?

And really: "female like catty gossiping"? Why not spray out some blatant sexism on top of your empty whinging?

Gordon Burkowski said...

@Nyquist: For me, the rationalist character of Objectivism is the central point. One can see this in case after case – whether it be the relation between thought and emotion, the nature of free will, the standard of the good for man, or the nature of art. There’s always a deductive argument that leads to the claim that something must inevitably be true; and that leads in turn to the conviction that any opposing evidence has to be false. The question that Objectivists never seem to ask is: “Is this true – in fact?” Once I began to ask that question rigorously and consistently, my Objectivist phase was soon over.

A related issue here is the relationship between theories and facts.

In the hard sciences, the facts come first, then the theories; and one critical contrary fact is enough to destroy any theory. Anyone who has tried having a discussion with an Objectivist on an issue like climate change soon realizes that they simply don’t accept this – especially in areas like history, psychology or politics.

Like all ideologues, Objectivists believe that facts are essentially subordinate to theory - that no grasp of the world is possible without a sound conceptual framework – theirs. Their claim, of course, is that their system is rooted in facts – in those “facts of reality” that Objectivists like to talk about. However, just as Rand’s theory of “measurement omission” is a case of false precision, so her allegiance to those “facts of reality” is a case of false empiricism. After all, when Rand talks about “facts of reality”, she is in actually presenting metaphysical arguments about “the nature of reality”. But if we call them “facts”, maybe people won’t notice that. . .

@Jzero: In future, I would suggest waiting a bit before dealing with a post from Q. If you let it dry out some, you can flick it right off.