About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, October 25, 2010

About Objectivism, part I: Metaphysics

By Massimo Pigliucci

There are two reasons I and my co-authors write this blog: on the one hand, we think that intellectual discourse needs all the help it can get, and we are trying to do our small part. On the other hand, we write so that we clarify to ourselves what we think on a variety of topics, at the same time opening our own ideas to critical challenge from our readers. The reality is of course a bit more messy and sometimes emotional, but that’s the idea.
In this spirit, it’s high time for me to tackle Objectivism, the philosophy of libertarian hero Ayn Rand. I have written occasionally about Rand, Objectivism and libertarianism on Rationally Speaking (e.g., here, here, here, here and here), but never in a systematic way. I intend to do so in a series of posts that will comment on four major aspects of Objectivism: its metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.
Before we get started, a few caveats. First and foremost, obviously this isn’t going to be a scholarly analysis of Objectivism. There are plenty of those around, and a good start is provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ayn Rand, which comes with an extensive set of references and additional resources. (If you’d like a more accessible non scholarly introduction, also with a good number of external references, check the Wiki entry instead.)
Second, I have to admit at the onset to a strong antipathy for Rand and her followers. This is nothing personal, as I obviously never met Rand (she died in ’82, when I was about to enter college in Rome), and I have several friends who are libertarians and/or objectivists. (I know, this sounds like one of those “and some of my best friends are Jewish / Black / Gay,” but it’s true.) Rather, my antipathy stems from a deep-seated rejection of the Randian universe based on fundamental philosophical and ethical incompatibilities. Nonetheless, I will point out where I do agree with Rand, and I will attempt the most charitable interpretation of Objectivism I can muster.
My thesis in what follows is that Rand’s ideas are either nothing new within the Western philosophical canon (and no, her alleged ignorance of other people’s ideas is no excuse to elevate her to the status of independent philosopher — she lived in Los Angeles and New York City, for crying out loud, where there are perfectly good public library systems), or are profoundly misguided. (Hmm, come to think of it, her principles would have prevented her from entering a public library, I suppose, since it is an example of the government stealing money from its citizens to further one of those concepts that were anathema to Rand: public education.) Maybe that’s why so many academic philosophers think of books like Atlas Shrugged as “sophomoric,” “preachy,” and “unoriginal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Okay, let’s get started then. From what I understand, the central tenets of Objectivism are as follows:
1) Reality exists independently of human (or any other) consciousness.
2) Humans have access to that reality through sense perception.
3) Objective knowledge is possible through perception, induction and deduction.
4) The moral purpose of life is to pursue one’s own happiness through something called rational self-interest.
5) The only social system consistent with Objectivist principles is complete laissez-faire capitalism.
6) The role of art is to allow humans to access metaphysical ideas in physical form via selective reproduction of reality.
Clearly (1) is an issue concerning metaphysics, (2) and (3) regard epistemology, (4) and (5) are matters of ethics, and (6) is a question of aesthetics. The rest of this post will therefore concern only point (1) above.
First off, what I agree with in Objectivist metaphysics: the clear rejection of non-natural and non-physical realms or entities. Rand was an atheist, and so am I, though our reasons for being so are quite different. As a corollary, both Rand and I reject any form of idealism in metaphysics.
Rand begins her metaphysics by articulating three axioms: consciousness, existence, and identity. She writes in Atlas Shrugged that “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” Wrong. An axiom is an assumption from which the discussion begins. It can (and should) be examined and/or challenged if the deductive consequences of the axiom(s) entail logical contradictions or any other rationally unacceptable conclusions. This is the way it works in math, logic, and philosophy.
Objectivist metaphysics states both that “existence exists” and that “existence is identity.” The first one can be understood in three ways: a) it is a truism based on an obviously circular proposition (could existence not exist? How could we know it?); b) it is uninformative inelegant grammar (“existence” is a noun, “exists” is a predicate, so this is like saying that “redness is red”); or c) perhaps more charitably, it is a simple ontological declaration that something exists. In the latter case, no philosopher — or anyone with a minimum of commonsense — has ever claimed otherwise. The trick, usually, is to elaborate on what one might mean by “existence.”
What about the identity thing? Here Rand simply restates the well known principle of identity, which goes back to Aristotle: “A leaf ... cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.” Indeed, A is A, Logic 101.
Things get a bit more interesting when we get to the third axiom, the one concerning consciousness. According to Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, “consciousness [is] the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Well, no, that would be sensorial perception, which we share with the other animals. Consciousness is best thought of as a particular type of internal perception, the paying attention to our own mental states, analogous to what cognitive scientists call proprioception, the ability our brain has to monitor internal physical states.
Rand believed in the primacy of existence, as opposed to the primacy of consciousness. The latter, of course, had been a staple of certain traditions in philosophy, including Descartes and the general doctrine of Idealism (think George Berkeley, for instance). However, she was beaten to the idea of the primacy of existence by a number of philosophers, most importantly Jean-Paul Sartre. (Indeed, it is interesting that Rand’s original choice of name for her philosophy was Existentialism, which alas was already taken.) Of course scientists ever since Darwin had already agreed that existence must precede consciousness, or we would have a rather bizarre sequence of evolutionary phenomena with which to reckon.
Rand claimed that “to be conscious is to be conscious of something” and that consequently the very existence of consciousness implies the existence of something else (that of which we are conscious). That would have shown Descartes, but alas the conclusion simply doesn’t follow. It is perfectly conceivable that something could be conscious only of its internal states (though of course natural selection would have a problem with the viability of such an entity). In fact, we can conduct experiments with subjects in complete sensorial deprivation, and they turn out to be conscious only of their own mental states (it is apparently a pretty unpleasant situation, where the brain begins to make up horrific and very much life-like visions of things that are not there, presumably just to keep itself entertained).
Finally, Rand’s metaphysics includes a theory of causation — something that has escaped a lot of serious philosophers since Hume pointed out that when we talk of causality it has hard to see what else we might mean other than that event A reliably follows event B in time. Causation for Rand is “the law of identity applied to action.” That sounds bizarre, since logic (of which the law of identity is a pillar) hardly compels physical action. Apparently, she meant that only “entities” can act, and that the nature of the action depends on the specific nature of the entity that engages in such action. Again, this is rather obscure, but it seems both a truism and a peculiarly limited theory of causality: what are we to make of causality when it does not refer to an “entity”? And what of mental causation?
Next time: Objectivist epistemology. Stay tuned.


  1. Apologies for the length - some observations:

    Your first objection to Rand - where you attempt to correct the definition of "axiom" - is without context. You can fault Rand for a lot of things, but she was not a particularly complex author of argument, and that is essentially her statement of definition for a term that she would then proceed to use in her further argument. It is irrelevant whether or not the meaning that she assigns corresponds to the meaning conventionally applied by other disciplines, and reflects nothing with respect to any other argument, outside of pointing out Rand's apparent ignorance of other academic disciplines, which would be an ad hominem argument.

    You actually seem to short the Identity axiom a touch, particularly considering the fact that it's the basic starting point for Objectivist ethics. The actual position is somewhat more complicated than the simple truism "A is A." What she interprets this to mean is that a thing is what you can understand it to be based on your perceptions, deductive, and inductive reasoning. For instance, if we very simply define a "plane" to be a manmade, heaver-than-air object designed to fly under its own power, you would understand a craft with a proper wing and a propeller that could fly to be a plane. If that's the only object definition you have, you can't parse any further than simply classifying it as "a plane," and it would be incorrect to associate with it any properties reserved for other types of objects. This is critically important in understanding where she cooks her ethics from, as I assume you'll get around to when you hit that point of the philosophy.

    Your argument concerning Rand's claims that consciousness implies the existence of a subject reality is frankly a little bit baffling. A conscious being that is only conscious of its own internal states is, first off, conscious of a thing which exists outside of its own conscious control (as is later implied by your example), which means that the statement is true, so I'm not sure what the criticism is. Further, the argument that I suspect an Objectivist would make to the proposition that a consciousness could be conscious of something which does not exist is that the proposition is fundamentally flawed. You must either posit an absolutely perfect hallucination (one where nothing you perceive nor anything you can understand intellectually is contradicted by the hallucination), in which case, because every effect that the entity would have on you if it were real would still occur to you (or else the perfection of the hallucination is broken) must take place, so as far as the consciousness is concerned, it is a meaningless distinction to draw between an hallucination that affects you exactly the same as an object in the real world and the real world. The other alternative is to posit a good, but not perfect hallucination, in which case you learn that it is not real precisely because it presents an incongruity with your understanding of things that are real (which we must presume also exist in the case of an imperfect hallucination). Consciousness demands the existence of a reality that it does not control, which is the definition of an objective reality.

    Finally, your analysis of the theory of causation, I think, may be a touch off-base. Her assertion, to my read, appears to suggest that in any two sets of identical circumstances, an identical event must have an identical outcome. Thus, if you have two bodies floating in empty space and one bumps into the other, the other must have some amount of energy and motion imparted to it, and this will always be the case. The implication, and the way that this relates to her axiom of identity, is that if you can usefully identify all of the initial conditions and the action in question, you can identify the result, much in the same way as you can identify an object in external reality on the basis of its observed properties.

  2. ...continued, because I am a blowhard too full of words for my own good.

    You are however right when you theorize that in Objectivist thought, only entities can act (action is only usefully defined in the term in which you'll encounter it when you get around to ethics as a voluntary action by a being capable of such). In this case, however, I suspect that she (and then, we) confused two uses of the term "action" - in ethics, we'll be discussing moral acts, whereas in this case we're examining the broader concept of anything happening over the dimension of time.

    Of course, I could be wrong about all this (I only know what I learned throughout high school and college and later, as a result of reading some of her texts out of curiosity - and I would definitely recommend jettisoning her entirely and going straight to Piekoff if you want to have any kind of academic discussion, since she is quite prone to hyperbolic rhetoric not particularly useful to making her point - and from using Objectivism as one of my go-to critical positions when I was involved in policy debate), as I am hardly a papered representative of The Objectivist Institute or whoever it is that runs the essay contest every year, but this was always my understanding of her reasoning.

  3. "It is perfectly conceivable that something could be conscious only of its internal states (though of course natural selection would have a problem with the viability of such an entity)."

    Assuming a physicalist framework, natural selection is a *consequence* of the fundamental laws of physics, not a fundamental law itself, right?

    So how could natual selection have a problem with such an entity? With appropriate initial conditions, presumably such an entity wouldn't be problematic at all for the laws of physics as we know them.

    Actually, in an infinite universe, given infinite time, I'd tend to think that the existence of such an entity is inevitable.

  4. Massimo wrote: "What about the identity thing? Here Rand simply restates the well known principle of identity, which goes back to Aristotle: “A leaf ... cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.” Indeed, A is A, Logic 101."

    Don't know if this somehow is meant to express the view that the law of identity is a clear-cut case of absolutely truth, holding firmly in every realm of reality. Personally I have my doubts whether A=A can be applied to the reality we live in. That sounds pretty bizarre, I know, but hear me out.

    The problem with this law is that it presupposes knowledge of sharply defined identifiable entities, things that can be separated out in reality. To be clear about it, I don't doubt the application of the law in the realm of logic, where every entity is under strict control of definition. But whenever we apply logic to reality we should be aware that there is no logic necessity that reality should follow logic, i.e. that physical entities necessarily can be identified with logical entities.

    Consider a variant of the law like A(t1)=A(t2). Let's suppose, for instance, that t1 and t2 are two points in time. Suddenly the necessity that the left hand side equals the right hand side vanishes. But one could say that we've changed the law of identity in something different. Well have we? How are we to determine in reality that we have all the details of A? Maybe there is some yet unknown attribute of A that spoils the fun when we would know it. In other words, we need full knowledge in advance of all attributes to reliably state such equality about an object in the physical reality we live in. Meaning that what looks like A today may be proven to be not a single entity tomorrow. And did I mention the tricks reality has up it sleeves, like Heisenberg's uncertaity relation, when we try to obtain arbitrary accurate measurement of attributes? Phrased alternatively still, one could say that we need absolute truth up front to establish the application of A=A rigourously in nature. Of course, that seems like cheating, since with access to absolute truth, all this seems easy peasy.

    Of course, this is nothing new. Leibniz centuries ago came up with Leibniz's Law in his Discourse on Metaphysics. Its converse, the principle of the identity of indiscernibles (x=y → ∀F(Fx ↔ Fy))implicitly means that without full absolute knowledge of all attributes of a given physical entity, the application of the Law of Identity to reality is troublesome to say the least.

    But don't let this connotation stop you from your excellent breakdown so far of Rand logic.

  5. So, in agreement with Rand, you are not an intrinsicist. You are instead the evil twin, a subjectivist, a fact made most obvious by your empathy for critical terms like "sophomoric," "preachy," and, above all, "unoriginal." These are quantitative characterizations (connotation-loaded of course) without relevance to the actual quality (validity) of the ideas. Subjectivists deny the existence of any intellectual relationship to objective truths, so "truth" becomes a subject of mere physical manipulations.

    Thus you failed from the get-go to grasp the objective base of knowledge (the axiomatic concepts) and opted for the usual subjective "assumption", i.e. an arbitrary mental construct. If you cannot understand Objectivism at the root level, of what value could anything you say about it thereafter possibly have?

    An axiom is not an assumption. The axiom "existence exists" is a statement of the most fundamental fact that can be grasped—the axiomatic concept of existence. That fact is self-evident and requires no proof. If one could prove it, then it would not be the most fundamental fact, because the fact on which it would rest would then be the most fundamental. One cannot define it, because it can have no common denominator or distinguishing characteristic to separate it from everything else—there isn't anything else! One cannot "elaborate on what one might mean by 'existence,'" because it is self-evident and its definition can only be demonstrative. What is existence? You wave your arms and say, "all of this."

    Existence is obviously more fundamental than any assumption with which one could begin a discussion, because some assumer would have to pre-exist the assumption that he would make with his consciousness and that would have a specific identity. You cannot make any statement about anything without presuming the existence of and depending on the validity of the primary concepts of existence, consciousness, and identity.

    Now, the statements, "existence exists," "consciousness is conscious," and "A is A" can be understood for what they are: the underscoring of their status as primary facts. The first word is the base, the second the "reminder" (Rand's term). That repetition converts the axiomatic concept in each case to a formal axiom. The very obviousness and grammatical oddity of those statements that are your complaints are part of what makes them axioms in the first place.

    And the other philosophers who explained these unoriginal axioms in this particularly unoriginal way were who? That accusation is what makes academics look so ridiculous. All philosophers share knowledge discovered and/or formulated by other philosophers while they attempt to correct their errors and omissions; and ultimately it is each and every philosopher's system as a whole that is original or not. Even your primitive little list of 6 central tenets of Objectivism cannot be found together in the oeuvre of any prior philosopher in the history of mankind. So, in addition to being irrelevant, your accusation of Rand's philosophy being unoriginal is also a lie.

  6. Fun topic! But oh dear, you do not need to be a psychic to be wary about the discussions that are going to follow...

    Brian: "outside of pointing out Rand's apparent ignorance of other academic disciplines, which would be an ad hominem argument."

    I guess that would have to be seen in the context of objectivists hailing her as the greatest philosopher who ever lived, so it is not an ad hominem because you can expect such a great philosopher to actually have a look at the existing literature before pretending to have invented something.


    The word axiom has a certain meaning, and objectivists do not get to redefine words by fiat. The same goes for their bizarre definition of capitalism, by the way. You could perhaps say, for Rand, an axiom is... - but it is something very different for everybody else.

  7. I'd be wary of the Intrinsicists who will argue that purpose is not a quality that is necessary to the definition of an object.

  8. I don't have much time to comment, but as for the axiom discussion, I think Rand used that term to invoke axiomatic-deductive arguments. If her system were truly axiomatic-deductive, then the only point you could criticize her at would be her axioms. She tried to make her axioms invulnerable to criticism so her system would be rationally ineluctable, something she clearly believed she achieved. The problem was she did not deduce her system from her ostensible "axioms." She clearly deployed auxiliary axioms (axioms in the normal sense of term) and did not successfully adhere to deduction.

    In other news, Massimo, you clearly are a more patient person than I am.

  9. Massimo - I only want to comment on her novels, primarily Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I have to say that, while I enjoyed both (The Fountainhead more than Atlas Shrugged), I found her characters - specifically her "heroes" - are so idealized as to be almost inhuman. John Galt and Howard Roark don't represent anything remotely close to real human beings. I think that's why people refer to her novels as "sophomoric".

  10. Timothy,

    believe me, your last comment is much appreciated...

  11. Eh. Rand is an important philosopher in your country? (this is just a question. From someone who never read her.) What I find hard with all this is the common attitude of "well Plato/Aristotle/Darwin/Jesus/Oprah said this and this so let´s go do it!" (so easy to follow a guru.) But I think the best philosopher is the one who helps you THINK FOR YOURSELF. I belong to the famous (and sometimes ridiculed) 68 generation. And we could NEVER accept the old attitude of "it is so beacuse I say so". We are not silly obediant CHILDREN are we??? (of course it helped to have a mother who was a free thinker. We were allowed to ask questions. Discussions were always going on.)
    I found the British school of word analysis very helpful. (emanating I suppose from Wittgenstein.) If we don´t think about what we say we soon don´t know what we´re saying! (and for example "rational" will become just a meaningless word.)
    Freedom! (we all want that.) "I´m for a free society!" Ask ALWAYS what the person (politician) MEANS. (Hitler meant freedom to kill off Jews.)
    Greetings from Swedish philosopher/preacher
    (I mean I´m a bad philosopher. Since I like to preach.) :) (originally a musicologist.)
    P.S. I even question the word "philosophy". What does it MEAN?? (to many it means boring incomprehensible stuff performed by boring brooding guys who hate to dance and have fun.) :)

  12. Alex SL,

    The meanings and definitions of words are contextual. Massimo adheres to the presently popular meaning (arbitrary assumption), because he speaks within the subjectivist philosophical context of a primacy of consciousness. But as Brian Seller correctly indicated above, Rand recognized the fatal flaw of such and necessarily worked within the opposite context of a primacy of existence. In that context, the more common (in academic circles, at least) idea that an axiom is no more than an arbitrary assumption is simply useless. So perhaps one could say, colloquial definitions are not necessarily the most reliable of philosophical tools.

    More important here, is that your comment evades the pertinent question at hand: how could an arbitrary assertion be regarded as a statement of a self-evident fact of reality that is the base of and essential component of all knowledge—whatever word in whatever language you want to tag that fact with?


    You have also evaded the ideas in favor of unsubstantiated assertions about her process. If Objectivists would capitulate and forfeit the word "axiom" to the subjectivists, it would not alter the question no one here has answered: if existence is not the primary axiomatic concept, what self-evident fact is more fundamental? Does the act of grasping existence not imply consciousness? Does it not imply that something is irrevocably distinct from something else?

  13. Michael,

    I'm not sure where you got the idea that I am a "subjectivist," I am not. But both philosophical scholarship and logic tell us quite clearly that there cannot be absolutely objective knowledge of the kind Rand wanted. Not even in math, let alone in worldly affairs. I'll elaborate on this on the installment on objectivist epistemology, coming up soon...

  14. Michael M: "You have also evaded the ideas in favor of unsubstantiated assertions about her process."

    My assertions were conclusory, but they are not unsubstantiated, and they did not concern her process - I have no idea what process she used to produce her books, nor did I say I did - but rather her logical invalidity. (Logical validity should be central to anyone who concerns herself with reason.) Anyone who has so much as a passing familiarity with even just basic, 101-logic would recognize how her arguments violate the non-explosiveness property, even if he or she didn't have the vocabulary to say it that way.

    The reason I'm only offering conclusory assertions, besides it being the work-week, is that in my experience there is little worth is debating Rand's fans. So for example, your posts illustrate the issue. Massimo argued that the act of grasping existence does not imply that something is irrevocably distinct from something else, but you complain he didn't. You label him a "subjectivist," when his post clearly discusses, albeit briefly, that he isn't. Your argument that he is - because he defines the term "axiom" to mean its ordinary meaning, which you take to mean "he speaks within the subjectivist philosophical context of a primacy of consciousness" - ignores his post (it clearly argues consciousness is not primary) and is logically invalid to boot: Whether you use the term "axiom" correctly or not in no way commits you either to subjectivism (of any type) or objectivism (of any type).

  15. Massimo: "Timothy, believe me, your last comment is much appreciated..."

    Ah, I'm glad I can return the favor, albeit only minutely and partially, of your wonderful blog.

  16. Massimo,

    "I'm not sure where you got the idea that I am a "subjectivist," I am not. But both philosophical scholarship and logic tell us quite clearly that there cannot be absolutely objective knowledge of the kind Rand wanted. "

    Absolutely none? Your second statement, that clearly implies all knowledge is ultimately arbitrary (subjective) gives lie to your claim in the first.

  17. Michael,

    really? So you think the only two alternatives are absolute objectivity or complete subjectivism? You might need to look up some intro books in logic and epistemology.

  18. re: “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.”

    Do you think she's offering a definition of the word "axiom" or giving a criterion for validating foundational axioms? If she's giving a criterion for validation that exploits the fact that something (like consciousness, existence, and causation) is a necessary condition of knowledge, it sounds an awful lot like transcendental logic, or maybe closer to Neokantianism, or even Heidegger's move toward the question of being, aka. existentialism. Considering her shtick about "existence", it seems a likely bedfellow.

  19. Rand put her philosophy to the test with her novels. Expecting perhaps to demonstrate its effects as a form of experiential logic.
    Yet what she demonstrated was that her version of what ought to be was unlikely to ever be, and therefor neither could nor should be.

  20. Excellent post, Massimo! Can we also include in this series a post on Rand's poor novel-writing skills and character development?

  21. Hmm, good idea, but I'm afraid that would be a bit out of my area of expertise...

  22. I think you may be a bit off in your understanding of Objectivism (will find out for sure with the future posts here). I'm currently engaged in a forum discussion regarding Objectivism over at the SGU forums:


    Just figured that I'd post a link, since your post here has been linked to from that discussion.

  23. omgobama,

    thanks for the link. Didn't realize that the SGU had an objectivist corner! I'll be curious to get more feedback on the additional posts, but frankly, objectivist philosophy ain't exactly rocket science. Often when people are accused not to understand objectivism it turns out that it is because Rand herself was confused or used obfuscatory language.

  24. "really? So you think the only two alternatives are absolute objectivity or complete subjectivism? You might need to look up some intro books in logic and epistemology."

    I don't need to look anything up to know that the claim you made is self-refuting. When you say, " there cannot be absolutely objective knowledge," the claim precludes itself from being absolutely objective knowledge. Consequently, it is not possible for the claim to be true. And so it has no use or value.

    Objective knowledge is the product of volitional, conceptual identifications that can be demonstrated to adhere to the actual nature of reality. Such knowledge is contextual in that it must be derived solely from presently available evidence, and it is hierarchical in that all non-axiomatic concepts must be reducible through the sequence of successively more fundamental concepts on which they depend to actual sensory perceptions by means of logic, i.e. non-contradictory identification.

    Which part of that process is humanly impossible?

    Re your question above, if nothing you say could possibly be objective knowledge, what could the content of your writing be other than subjective? You cannot deny the possibility of objective knowledge and also deny that you are a subjectivist. You either require knowledge to adhere to the reality that is independent of your consciousness or you don't. To the degree that you do, you are objective (your denial of the possibility notwithstanding). To the degree that you do not, you are subjective. So, to answer your question, yes—there is no other alternative.

  25. Oh boy, you've gotta love a sophistic objectivist. Okay, then look up those books anyway, but this time because *very likely* there cannot be objective knowledge. How's that?

  26. I always thought objectivity was the most accurate form of subjectivity. I tried to write a book about the object that viewed the subject back objectively, but the characters were wooden.

  27. Massimo,

    I have to agree with Michael M with regard to your proposition. If there cannot, as you say, "be absolutely objective knowledge," then how can you know for sure that your proposition is true? Rand's knowledge standards weren't that unique.

  28. "We cannot be certain that anything is certain" is not a paradox.

  29. Many people - in general, not only some commenters here - seem to have an extremely hard time accepting any knowledge that is based not on 100% secure, guaranteed-to-be-correct deduction, but merely on pragmatic heuristics, being most probable or accepting something as a tentative conclusion open for revision at any time. They want to be completely certain that they are right (and all others, by extension, definitely wrong and to be sneered at).

    I also believe that there is an objective reality out there, but it is trivially true that we cannot demonstrate from first principles that all we know is not an elaborate hallucination, or that the world was not created last Thursday by an all-powerful sapient sea cucumber to look as if it was uncreated and 13.7 billion years old. There is simply no way to do that, end of story. We can only say that these are not very helpful or testable proposals either, but that is making a reasonable assumption, not having completely secure knowledge.

    Much more importantly, of course, it pays to be wary of any ideology that tries to deduct a utopia and morals from first principle, without taking into account actual empirical data about human behaviour and the internal dynamics of economies and societies. Even if Rand's philosophy was entirely well-founded and correct, the society she envisions would simply be neither compatible with actual human desires and behaviour nor stable. Baron P made a very shrewd observation there, mirroring the slacktivists argument against the Left Behind books.

  30. Michael L, Michael M,

    I'm sorry, but there is plenty of epistemology making serious arguments that we cannot possibly hope to achieve objective knowledge. Moreover, there are mathematical proofs that knowledge is always incomplete. It is simply not the case "we can't know anything for sure" is a self-contradictory statement.

  31. @Michael M:
    Sorry, Massimo is right about the impossibility of totally objective epistemology. Right with the crushing weight of a pallet of bricks.

    Good work putting that claim in a form that vaguely resembles self-refutation; that was amusing. But seriously: PROVE to me that we're not figments of Ctulhu's imagination. Can't? I rest my case.

    Alex SL said it: we just make do with our epistemic limits as best we can. There is still objectively good & bad epistemology, but not objective epistemology (whatever that would mean).

  32. Subjectivity can be used to attack any philosophy. The moment an argument against something falls to postmodernism and begins to resemble calling evolution "only a theory" the game is up. That side may not lose, but it has given up the possibility of winning.

  33. Yay, Alex SL. Amen to your last post. If one's best reason for doubting practical reality is an "evil genius" or the possibility that we are brains in a vat, then you don't have a very good reason to doubt it. Systematic Doubt should be replaced with practical doubt (which is another way of saying "science") Science is a messy process that progresses (as the adage goes) funeral by funeral. Analytic Philosophy is a friend to science both as a defender and a mentor. And like all good mentors, Analytic Philosophy can warn science away from its own failures. AP has done a good job of defining the problem of first principals, but it has failed to ultimately find them. Heck, it's even failed to come up with a satisfying definition of science. Objectivists can only pretend otherwise in an autodidactic jargon balloon. Witness MIchael M who doesn't need to look anything up.

    Baron P. "The View from Nowhere" is the nonfiction version of your book. Wooden characters, on the other hand, particularly those who slap each other to show that they are in love, is Rand's specialty.

  34. More accurately, there are mathematical proofs showing that *mathematical knowledge* is incomplete. Surely a philosopher shouldn't be so imprecise when making a statement about knowledge?

  35. omgobama,

    I most certainly am no postmodernist, nor did I ever invoke relativism. The forced choice between objectivism and subjectivism is a false dichotomy.


    first of all, mathematical knowledge is a form of knowledge, yes? Second, incompleteness theorems apply to logic itself, which is a broader kind of knowledge than just mathematics.

  36. Did I say that it was Objectivism or subjectivism? No. However you did say,

    "I'm sorry, but there is plenty of epistemology making serious arguments that we cannot possibly hope to achieve objective knowledge. Moreover, there are mathematical proofs that knowledge is always incomplete. It is simply not the case 'we can't know anything for sure' is a self-contradictory statement."

    How is this not a defense of postmodernism / subjectivism?

  37. Massimo, you said that the incompleteness theorem applies to logic itself. If I am not mistaken the incompleteness theorem applies to any formal system that is capable of expressing elementary arithmetic. That means specific kinds of logic that are most relevant to mathematicians but certainly are not nearly as general as "logic itself". The logic systems that philosophers use, I imagine, do not include the Peano axiom?

  38. OneDayMore, you said "Analytic Philosophy can warn science away from its own failures." Can you name one example?

  39. Massimo et al,

    My apologies for aiding and abetting the off-topic discussion of epistemological objectivity that actually encroaches on your post to follow. Objectivity in the context of this venue should be restricted to the question of whether the nature of existence is independent of consciousness or not.

    That said, we did at least qualify the thread via the all but unanimous view of present participants that nothing any of you have said or will say against Ayn Rand and Objectivism should be taken by any reader to be absolutely objectively true.

    While I still disagree with the reason why nothing you've said on this subject so far is actually true, I think it best to just take your word for it for now, and revisit that later, when and if any of you come to your senses and recognize what you have done to the efficacy of your own arguments.

  40. Optical,

    To bel clear, I'm saying that the failures of Analytic Philosophy can be useful to science, and also that philosophy (of all kinds) can help scientists refine their experiments.

    But to answer your question, I think the most important failure of Analytic Philosophy was the failure of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead to find the logical foundations of mathematics. (Not to say that their work wasn't hugely important and useful). This is why Wittgenstein's work became about Philosophy of Language, and why the whole post modern project began. Logical Positivism was, in a sense, a very different response to the same sort of crisis. Other examples would be (stretching the definition of AP a little) the failure of Descarte's cogito, and the lack of satisfying rejoinder to Hume's induction problem.

    So, how does this knowledge help scientists? Well, it certainly points up the dangers in making a priori foundational assertions. When Stephen Hawkings makes statements about the General Relativity being sufficient to cause the universe, given that his understanding of GR is based on mathematical abstraction, you can see that he's on fairly shaky ground. And, IMO, Objectivism doesn't even come close to that level of coherency.

  41. optical,

    as I tried to explain before, plenty of epistemology and foundational work in logics shows clearly that objective knowledge is not achievable. This, however, does not force one into relativism, because there are alternatives, including perspectivism: http://amzn.to/chvct7

    As for Godel's theorem, you are correct. But there is now a growing family of incompleteness theorems, which have enlarged the scope of the original significantly. More broadly, again, my views are consistent with the failure during the 20th century to provide self-sufficient foundations for math and logic.

  42. @Michael M
    >"That said, we did at least qualify the thread via the all but unanimous view of present participants that nothing any of you have said or will say against Ayn Rand and Objectivism should be taken by any reader to be absolutely objectively true."

    I think it's time to get very clear about epistemology vs. ontology. Apologies if this sounds condescending, but I do get the feeling you're unclear on this.

    Ontology is about what actually exists. Obviously, if X exists, the statement "X exists" is true. Objectively, absolutely, 100%, yada yada yada. No postmodernism here! No nonsense about "whatever's true for you."

    Epistemology is about what we can know. And unfortunately, there is just NO WAY to rule out the possibility that the Dark Lords of the Matrix are screwing with your brain, moving the atoms around in order to make you feel 100% certain. Hence, absolute total epistemic realism is not viable.

  43. Ianpollock,

    The Dark Lords of the Matrix could screw with us in many ways perhaps (particularly with the laws of physics) but would be unable to contravene the laws of logic (identity, non-contradiction, etc.) The truth of these propositions is something we can know for sure since we affirm them any time we argue.

  44. Michael L:

    >The truth of these propositions is something we can know for sure since we affirm them any time we argue.

    Sheeple! That's just what they want you to think. =)

    Again, though, the question is not whether anybody can contravene the laws of logic. That's ontology - what is actually true.

    The question is how we know with 100% perfect certainty that the laws of logic are true. And here's how we know: we use our brains to think about the laws of logic NOT being true, and our brain returns: does_not_compute. But for all we know, the Dark Lords of the Matrix are controlling that part of our brain for their own nefarious purposes, fooling us into thinking our petty earth logic is universal.

    It's not necessary to imagine the laws of logic suspended. All you need to do is imagine yourself convinced that the laws of logic are suspended. That's easy.

  45. Ianpollock,

    Knowledge and certainty are contextual. To the degree that the ontological status of existence is inaccessible, it is inherently irrelevant to both. "What you sees is what you gets." Make the most of it.

    And once again, the utility to human beings of your claim that "absolute total epistemic realism is not viable." depends entirely on that "is" in the middle of your claim being somehow exempt from it.

  46. >Make the most of it.

    I actually agree with that. For the purposes of life, we just assume the (relative) reliability of our epistemology, and that's fine. But it IS an assumption.

    >...depends entirely on that "is" in the middle of your claim being somehow exempt from it.

    Fine. I assign high confidence (p~0.999) to the proposition "absolute epistemic realism is not viable." Anyway, assigning 100% certainty to anything is crazy. There but for the grace of Bayes go I.

  47. Ianpollack

    No matter how many times and in how many different formulations you posit the impossibility of certain knowledge, you can never escape the self-contradiction inherent in that position:

    " For the purposes of life, we just assume the (relative) reliability of our epistemology"

    Then the truth of this statement cannot itself be more than just relatively reliable at best.

    " But it IS an assumption."

    Aren't you just arbitrarily taking it for granted (assuming) that it is an assumption?

    "I assign high confidence (p~0.999) to the proposition "absolute epistemic realism is not viable."

    In spite of the fact that it hasn't earned it. The statement ,"absolute epistemic realism is not viable," is by its own admission not a viable statement.

    "Anyway, assigning 100% certainty to anything is crazy."

    1) How certain of that are you?, and 2) How certain are you that you are that certain?, and 3) How certain ... etc. Being certain that 100% certainty is impossible—that's crazy.

  48. I apologize for attempting to shift the debate ahead of time. I believe the true genius in Rands work was to bring us true understanding of the dangers in Progressivism as it relates to society and/or economics. Her views (whether philosophically sound or not) are very accurate as to the overall health of a capital system. Isn't that really the important thing here? Was she right when it came to the belief that objectivism is the best way to provide prosperity to all people? Not being an Atheist (ya I know, shame on me), I have much to differ with Ayn. But I am curious if people can make a sound argument as to how intentionally removing objectivism from economics has any benefit to the economic health of a society. I personally feel she was way off on her assessment the objectivism is morally sound, but feel she is spot on that objectivism as it relates to an economic system is spot on (because all that really means is freedom and allowing personal want for happiness to drive it). I think that her heroes like Dagney lack certain realism, but she gets it right in what drives the producers of society. Bottom line is the question, does the Libertarian view provide more wealth and prosperity for all people or does the progressive view? ( this does not mean I am for unbridled non-regulated economics, but I am amazed at peoples reluctance to acknowledge that regulation almost always hurts the very people it intends to help). Rand does an excellent job is showing this in her books. The importance of her work is in spelling this out for us. She has some uncanny predictions that have come true, not due to any particular genius but through her own experience which I think most would have to admit is a not more well rounded than what most of us have had to live through.

  49. Her point on objectivism is less about philosophy and more about government and the morality of regulating a persons freedoms. The debate should really be about -should law be able to be anti-objectivism? One flaw that these discussions seem to have (as in most philosophical debates) is they should include how it relates to actual reality. Meaning if you apply Rands philosophy to law, is it right or wrong. Does it make people more or less free. Does it make society more or less prosperous?

  50. have you responded to their argument from the non-aggression axiom? if so, where?

  51. I don't have time to read all 50 comments here, so I apologize if this has already been said: "exists" is not a predicate. That's one of the easiest mistakes to make in logic: treating "exists" as a property of an object, rather than the condition that must be met for properties to apply in the first place. In modern logic, this is seen by the fact that the existence of something is signified by a quantifier, not a predicate.

    When you use "exists" in the wrong way, you can "prove" the existence of anything, solely by definition. Indeed, that's exactly what every known version of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God attempt to do. Kant's criticism of the argument, in fact, anticipated this doctrine of logic by nearly a century.



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