Rand Rants Part 2: Ignoring the Obvious

Ayn Rand

You’d think it’d be obvious that, when creating a ‘new philosophy,’ that you’d have to provide some argument against the obvious and inherent alternative to your philosophy.  Especially when that alternative is 300 years old and a widely held as a philosophical standard.  But when touting their completely unprecedented philosophy they call Objectivism, Rand and Peikof don’t even address the obvious opposition to this philosophy, Subjectivism.  From the Wikipedia page:

“Subjectivism is the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience”.[1] The success of this position is historically attributed to Descartes and his methodic doubt.”

Along with basically inventing graphs, Descartes laid the groundwork for modern philosophy, basing his technique on methodic doubt, something Rand and Peikof seem to have been born without.  He called into question every knowledge claim that he could think of, and ultimately determined that he could only know for certain that he exists, because he can doubt these claims.  Hence his famous line, “I think, therefore I am.”  Every other facet of his existence and perception was subject to some degree of doubt, and so cannot be said to be wholly true.  Yet Rand and Peikof claim, without providing any argument against his reasoning, that reality exists objectively, independent of consciousness.

Along with completely ignoring, while at the same time opposing, Descartes’ subjectivism, Rand and Peikof completely ignore subjective experience as part of their logical equations.  Their attempt to prove the axiom of existence, through the character of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, goes something like this:

“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

Sound logic yes?  But the something of which you must be conscious is not objective reality.  Descartes is quite clear that the only thing of which he is conscious is his own thoughts.  What we are aware of is the experience of our senses, i.e. subjective experience.  Whether or not the data gathered from our senses corresponds to objects that exist independently, is something that Descartes showed as clearly dubious.  We know that we cannot always trust our senses, and we also know that what we actually experience is our brains’ interpretation of that data, not the data itself.  But Rand and Peikof need not doubt these things, because they simply know them.  They are axioms, and hence unquestionable.  Even though the father of modern philosophy saw fit to question them, according to Rand, we don’t need to at all.

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Rand Rants Part 1: Objecting to Objectivism

There’s a debate going on on Dan O’Brian’s blog The Search for Truth about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  I had never read much by or about Ayn Rand, but this debate sparked my interest, mainly because I had no idea that she dabbled in pure philosophy.  And by dabble, I mean she dips her toes in just enough to get wet and then says she went swimming.  The more I read of her ‘philosophy,’ the more I want to bring her back from the dead just to slap her across the face.  Yet for some reason, I can’t stop reading it; it’s like picking at a scab.  It’s frustrated me so much that I’ve come back from a short hiatus just to write a series of posts strictly dedicated to deconstructing every facet of her flawed ‘logic.’  I’m not sure how many I’ll write, depending on how soon this rage wares off, but hopefully it will be more than just this one.  If these posts seem a bit unorganized and ranting, I apologize, but that’s just the kind of thing someone like her does to my ADD-addled brain.  It’s hard to even pick a place to begin with her, but I suppose it’s best to start at the foundation of her self-proclaimed ‘new philosophy.’

When introducing her philosophy, Rand audaciously claims that it is unprecedented and entirely of her own conjuring, which should be a huge red flag to anyone interested in philosophy.  She also claims that it is a philosophy based entirely on reason, and that reasoning is the only way a person makes sense of the world, so it seems odd that she doesn’t even consider that another person could reasonably come to the same conclusions she has, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Rand calls her entirely new and revolutionary philosophy ‘Objectivism,’ opting against ‘Randism’ as Mike Wallace suggests in his 1959 interview with her (though it wouldn’t be out of character for her).  Objectivism is based on three propositions that Rand claims are ‘axioms.’  This an extremely convenient way to start a philosophical discussion, because an axiom, by definition, cannot be called into question.  By claiming these propositions are axioms, besides kicking logic squarely in the scrotum, Rand evades the very line of questioning that would unravel her entire philosophy.  Let’s take a look at each of these ‘axioms’ in depth, and see if they are in fact unquestionable.

The first axiom is the axiom of existence.  The simplest explanation of this axiom that Rand provides is “Existence exists.”  This is a bafflingly muddled and ultimately meaningless statement for several reasons.  If Rand means existence as ‘the state of existing,’ then the statement is definitively untrue.  ‘Existence’ by definition does not have the attributes of itself, i.e. can’t exist or not exist.  If we start to argue for or against the existence of existence, then we end up in a grammatical conundrum of endless meaninglessness, so let’s hop off that train right now.  Rand clarifies this axiom in The Objectivist Newsletter (1962) by stating, “Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.”  This seems to be Rand’s attempt to completely disregard the entire branch of philosophy known as metaphysics.  The objective existence of reality may be one of the oldest questions of philosophy, and one that has yet to be definitively answered, except by Rand’s own volition.  To claim this proposition to be true beyond question is to completely undermine the works of Aristotle, DesCartes, Kant, Russell, and of course, our boy Wittgenstein, just to name a few.  The second part of the statement just shows more of Rand’s ignorance, as well as her tendency to generalize all opposition to her theory as superstition.  If she were a real philosopher, that statement might have gone something like ‘facts are the case independent of consciousness,’ which is just untrue.  Facts do not exist in objective reality.  A fact is something understood by a mind.  The fact that a cup is blue is not a physical object.  The cup is a physical object, blue is a certain wavelength of light, but the blueness of the cup is something understood by a conscious observer.  Leonard Peikoff, a Rand acolyte who is much more well-versed in philosophy than herself, clarifies even further, stating, “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms.”  This is logically true, but it does not prove the objective existence of reality.  If I hallucinate an object, then I am conscious of something that doesn’t exist.  You could argue that the object exists as a construct of my consciousness, and so exists in reality, but this is not the ‘objectively absolute’ reality that Rand claims exists.

The second axiom is that of consciousness.  It’s at this point that anyone who’s read even a little bit of philosophy would throw their hands up in frustration.  These first two axioms combined completely contradict Cartesian Dualism, arguably the most widely-held philosophy of mind, without directly addressing it or providing any kind of argument against it.  Once again, Rand states these as axioms to avoid any such discussion, and fails to see that in an objectively absolute reality, consciousness cannot exist.  Rand also claims that existence has primacy over consciousness, that consciousness conforms to existence.  Again, providing no evidence or reasoning, she and her lackey Peikoff claim this as axiomatic, and that any philosophy that claims the primacy of consciousness is mystical, superstitious mumbo jumbo, despite the overwhelming evidence that consciousness does in fact directly affect reality.

The final axiom is the law of identity.  This is a law of logic set down by Aristotle, and may be the only actual axiom of the three.  The law of identity is that “A is A,” that a thing is itself.  This is foundational for defining logic and is hardly new to philosophy, though Rand and her devil’s advocate Peikoff claim that “You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”  And the audacity continues.  With not even a morsel of respect for any thinker since Aristotle, Peikoff claims, based on Rand’s teachings, that no one has fully understood this basic and not-at-all-hard-to-understand principle of logic.  They use this axiom to neatly tie together all three into an absurd and unfounded statement that defines their entire philosophy, and which, according to them, is not subject to debate.

Stay tuned for more ranting about this non-philosophic philosophy and its self-obsessed and deluded founder. 🙂

Where Is My Mind?

 

As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized.  In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras.  But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering.  As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.

One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness.  Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so.  The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles.  But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical.  But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail.  The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism.  Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world.  So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist.  But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many.  It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture.  This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.

Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances.  The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness.  Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain.  This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.

One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers.  Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness.  He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.  According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience.  While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference.  This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’  Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data.  For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red.  But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind.  One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched.  This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit.  Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on.  There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.

While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two.  We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains.  We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us.  Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it.  For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds.  We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information.  We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon.  This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well.  As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly.  The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example.  The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it.  For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.

Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes.  The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.