Introduction to Objectivism Mind and Body:
Free Will and Causality
Last Modified: September 9, 1995
This essay deals primarily with a technical point, the relationship between the human mind and the human body and the reconciliation of free will with causality. I call this a technical point because it is not strictly required of philosophy.
A philosophy without a position on the nature of reality or without one on the validity of ethical statements would be deficient. All a philosophy need say about free will is that men have it. All it need say about causality is that an entity's future states are dependent upon its nature.
There is no reason why a philosophy needs to take a specific position on how the mind and body interrelate beyond what is necessary to validate its ethical system. There is no reason why a philosophy needs to say more about causality than that causal claims are valid claims and can be investigated according to the criteria of its epistemology.
In other words, a consistent philosophical framework need say little about causality. In fact, future science may show our current notion of causality to be quite incorrect. This would not damage any philosophy that had not exceeded its proper scope. A broad notion of causality is a scientific notion not a philosophic notion.
For these reasons, this essay primarily serves two purposes. First, it serves as a further example of the utility of Objectivist principles in an area of inquiry that is primarily scientific. Second, it serves as a defense against attempts to `disprove' Objectivism based on alleged inconsistencies between Objectivism and present scientific discoveries.
Let me first state that this essay discusses my own views. My views are consistent with Objectivist fundamentals but do not coincide with those of certain official Objectivists in a few particulars. In most of these particulars, it is my position that the Objectivists involved attempted to extend Objectivism beyond the bounds of philosophy. I ask you to filter my ideas through your own reasoning and ask me to defend those views with which you may not agree.
Modern science is frequently misrepresented as supporting either of two opposing views. Some will claim that science supports the notion that causality is an illusion and all things are indeterminate -- they typically cite Quantum Mechanics.
The flip side of this false dichotomy is the position that science `requires' or `presupposes' the notion that all future facts of reality are potentially determinable from the present facts of reality. This doctrine claims that a belief in true free will is incompatible with a scientific viewpoint.
The first position, that all things are indeterminate, would make reason impotent. If all things are indeterminate, reason can reach no useful conclusions. Of course, it would then be incapable of realizing that all things are indeterminate -- `indeterminate' refers to a specific status.
Stating that all things are indeterminate is precisely equivalent to stating that all generalizations are false. To weaken it to `all generalizations are questionable' is to tell us something unspectacular that we already know. In short those who take this position must castrate it into irrelevancy, defend it into absurdity, or reject reason wholesale.
The second position, that of strict determinism, undermines reason directly by declaring it impossible. The link between freedom and reason is stronger than is sometimes realized. Nathaniel Branden discussed this issue in his essay The Contradiction of Determinism (The Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963).
If we accept the thesis of strict determinism, that future states of the universe are completely determined by its present state, men are not fundamentally free to compare their hypotheses with reality and reject them if they do not correspond. Nor are they free to act as moral agents.
It will not do to argue that men possess a built-in, self-correcting mechanism. Men could equally well be argued to possess a built-in, self-deluding mechanism. Without the freedom to choose one's values and beliefs, one believes and values what one is `constructed' to believe and value. One has no say in the matter.
Obviously, one must act as one is `constructed' in the sense that one cannot act against one's nature. The key point is that one's construction does not completely determine one's behavior. To argue that it does it to be vulnerable to the above refutation.
Strict determinism also demolishes ethics. How can you hold a person responsible for his decisions when he has no say in the matter and cannot affect the future state of the universe? How can he if it is completely determined by factors that existed prior to his conception? Without free will, men can have no volition.
Rational men do not blame murders on guns and knives -- we blame them on murderers. We do this because we know that guns and knives do not have volition. There is nothing they could have done to change their `behavior'. It is obvious upon introspection that the same is not the case for you.
One cannot retain strict determinism and still blame people for their actions. True, their `configuration' is part of the cause of their actions, but their consciousness is not. How you can justify punishing their consciousness for acts beyond its control, that it could not have prevented?
Free will is as axiomatic as consciousness because the two are fundamentally inseperable. A consciousness without volition is a contradiction in terms. Not only is it psychological suicide for a human to accept that he has no control over his future and other humans have no control over theirs, but it is philosophical suicide.
But perhaps the strongest ammunition against the strict determinist's position is the fact that it does not accurately reflect modern science. We see from quantum fact that indeterminism is the rule in the micro world. That is, our universe is a mixture of determinism and indeterminism. Philosophy requires neither, but it does require causality.
The sense in which Quantum Mechanics supports free will is that it provides a counter-argument to the following invalid argument: suppose someone `chooses' to fire a gun at someone. At some point in the past, there must have existed two possible future states of the universe for the same `time', one in which he fired the shot and one in which he didn't and his volition alone had to make the choice.
But how could this be. Suppose we `roll' the two possible futures side by side and stop the `projector' at the first state where the two differ. Suppose in one an electron goes left and in the other right. Well, wouldn't this violate conservation of momentum? Supposing that some other electron goes the opposite way, we can preserve momentum, but what of conservation of energy?
In other words, Quantum Mechanics provides a refutation to the claim that science has demonstrated determinism. Of course, science could never do any such thing -- I am as certain that I have free will as I am that I am conscious.
At this time, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that one's consciousness `operates' the body through manipulating the collapse of quantum wave functions, and this is not what I am claiming. What I am claiming is that strict determinism can no longer claim any scientific support for its view, and it never had any philosophic support.
Man's nature includes his free will. He can choose to go to sleep early, but he cannot choose to disappear. The future states of a man depend on his present state, the present state of the universe, and his nature as a rational, free-willed being (and possibly upon truly random factors).
This is why Objectivism's principle of causality is phrased according to the potential future states available to an entity and not its actual future state. This is also why Objectivism's principle of causality does not itself refer to causes or causation.
This may seem paradoxical, but it is actually quite important. There is no a priori reason why the universe need be structured as a succession of causes. This will be discussed in detail in Existence and Cosmology, Part Two.
We need entities. To know that one exists requires knowing that there are existents. We need a link between future states, else man would not be equipped to survive. What we need not specify philosophically is the precise nature of the implementation of these requirements. That is for future (and present) science to illuminate.
Objectivism makes existence and consciousness primaries and declares both axiomatic. Existence means the existence of entities that one can perceive. Consciousness refers to one's own ability to do the perceiving (among other things) and the existence of perceptions.
This brings us to the issue of the relationship between existence and consciousness in the specific case of the relationship between a conscious mind and the body that houses it. The problem arises when we attempt to explain how conscious decisions manifest as physical actions; I choose to raise my hand and it rises. How does the decision, a mental event, result in the raising, a physical event?
Objectivism grants existence axiomatic status because it cannot be denied, is implicit in any claim, and can be gestured at and perceived directly. Objectivism grants consciousness axiomatic status because it cannot be denied, is implicit in any claim and can be perceived directly.
Present and future science has uncovered connections between mind and matter. These include the correspondence between mental states and brain electrical activity, the correspondence between damage to the brain and mental impairment, the explanation of the physical operation of the senses, the discovery and explanation of the operation of the peripheral nervous system and so on. All of these discoveries form an argument that human mental phenomena depend on a physical structure to support their existence.
But it is important to remember that the mental events are not their physical structure. A pin jabbing me is not the same as the pain I feel when a pin jabs me. The neurons that fire in my body and my brain as a pin jabs me are very closely associated with the pain I feel but they are not the pain I feel. The pain itself is a mental phenomenon.
However closely associated the pain and the physical event are, they are not the same. They are entities of fundamentally differing types. Just as `three' is a fundamentally differenty type of thing thing than three of anything in particular.
The sense in which the pain is the physical activity is the sense in which seeing two sides of a coin is seeing the same coin. These are two different appearences or modes of manifestation of the same underlying phenomenon. To call that phenomenon physical or mental (and thus one merely a manifestation of the other) accomplishes nothing; it is clearly both.
An analogy to consider is feeling and seeing the same object. The object is not the sight of it and not the feel of it. The object is the existent whole that manifests itself in both sense modalities.
Note that this position is very different from a primacy of consciousness position. Primacy of consciousness refers to the notion that mental events can exist without any physical existents to support them. There is certainly no reason to suppose that this is the case.
This position is also not Cartesian Dualism. Cartesian Dualism is the position that mental existents and physical existents are independent. There is no reason to suppose it possible for mental existents to exist without a physical substratum to support them. In fact all of the available evidence suggests that complex physical structures are necessary for complex mental events to take place.
Nor is this position idealism. Idealism is the notion that mental existents are somehow more real than physical existents. There is no such thing as degrees of reality in this context. All that is, is.
Entire contents Copyright (C) 1994, 1995 Joel Katz, All rights reserved, except as below: Permission is given to distribute this material electronically provided that it is unedited and presented in its entirety, including the copyright notice. Distribution in print or distribution of excerpts requires permission, address requests to email@example.com, no fee will be requested. I wish to be assured that I am not mis-represented and am made aware of where my work is being distributed. Quotation of brief excerpts is permitted so long as they are attributed.
Introduction to Objectivism
Last modified: September 9, 1995
Metaphysics, as I discussed in the preceding essay, is the study of the nature of reality. It addresses the question, ``what exists?'' and answers it with ``everything.'' Again we encounter three basic axioms (or more loosely, laws).
Note that these are not Aristotle's three axioms of logic, discussed in the preceding essay. We are now talking about axioms of reality. Later we will return to Aristotle's three axioms as further axioms of reality.
The first axiom is called the axiom of reality or existence. Rand phrased it as ``existence exists.'' This means that unless one accepts the existence of reality, one cannot reason at all. An acknowledgement of this claim is implicit in any other claim. Even to make the counter claim, ``there is no reality'' is to make a specific claim about what the nature of reality actually is, thus admitting that it has one. It also acknowledges implicitly that perceptual and conceptual awareness are themselves existents.
The next axiom is the axiom of identity in its most fundamental form -- every existent entity (and this is the only kind that there is) is what it is -- meaning it is something specific. It has the properties it has and not others; in a word, it has an identity. It exists. Again, to deny this is to assert a specific property of specific existents.
The last axiom is the axiom of consciousness. This axiom states that men are conscious and have the ability to reason and think. The truth of this axiom is available directly by introspection. To deny this you must assert that you do not think it is true, but if it was not true, you could not think. Denial requires a denyer.
You may be tempted to dismiss these axioms as asserting the obvious, and of course, they do. That is exactly the point. You will soon see how unobvious they are to some when we consider such matters as infinity and causality.
Each of the six axioms mentioned so far (existence, metaphysical identity, consciousness, logical identity, non-contradiction, excluded-middle) are verifiable by direct perception. To be granted axiomatic status, a fact must be ostensively demonstrable. In other words, one can say ``by reality I mean this'' and sweep one's hand.
A ``percept'' is the smallest individual piece of perception just as a ``concept'' is the smallest piece of conception. We start out by forming concepts out of our percepts. We see a several chairs and several non-chairs and note the similarities and differences and wind up forming the concept ``chair''.
Every percept is a percept of something. Every percept identifies specific attributes of an object (in relation to the perceiver). Every percept requires a perceiver and every concept a conceiver.
For an Objectivist to accept some assertion as having truth value, it must either be perceivable directly or derivable from preceding perceptions. Should future percepts invalidate it, it must be rejected as an error. No other standard is needed or accepted.
In essence, concepts are tools men use to manipulate large numbers of percepts efficiently. You create the concept ``justice'' because without a single label for all the observations and knowledge that go into that concept it would be too difficult for you to think about concepts that are based on justice.
You also understand the concept ``justice'' on many levels. At its simplest level, justice is a sense of fairness about a transaction. At higher levels, justice refers to a complex system of accusations, defenses, procedures, standards, and so on.
Man is not omniscient and may make errors. This presents no metaphysical problem. Just because a man may make errors under certain circumstances, it does not follow that he may make errors under any circumstances. Both error and certainty are possible to man.
As an analogy, human beings are capable of bearing children and running a mile in four minutes. As Branden notes, this does not mean that an elderly, crippled gentlemen is capable of either.
Consciousness is always consciousness of something in reality. A consciousness may fail to volitionally identify correctly the subject of its consciousness, but it is still there in reality. Any other standard obstructs rather than assists the quest for accurate identification.
It does not matter who perceives an entity or how it is analyzed, it is. What exists exists independent of who perceives it. At a later point, I will devote some time to analyzing certain interpretations of Quantum Mechanics that may appear to conflict with this principle; they do not.
Regardless of what Quantum Mechanics may ultimately tell us about the nature of realty, it will never tell us that it has no specific nature or that its nature is whatever we want it to be. We will also have to be careful to distinguish quantum fact from quantum interpretation.
If anyone out there disputes these fundamental aspects of metaphysics, I would like to know how they propose to tell me. If they are to question my writings, they must admit that they are what they are and not what they perceive them to be. If this were the case, they should write to themselves.
Do not bother trying to engage in rational discourse with me if you refuse to admit that rational discourse is possible, that I exist, that you exist, that you know I exist, that you know you exist, and so on. If you are in doubt about these things, be true to your beliefs and remain silent.
There is nothing worse than arguing with someone who claims that you do not exist. Some mystical philosophers really do claim to believe this -- they call it 'transcending the self.' There is nothing worse than arguing rationally over whether rational discourse is possible. As Tom Lehrer phrased it, in a somewhat less serious context, ``if you are unable to communicate, the least you can do is to shut up.''
I will deal with one of these absurdities specifically, the question of whether one's senses provide one with valid information about reality. It is probably one of the most commonly argued such absurdities, often used as a battering ram to assault reason. If you are seriously interested in any others, don't let my semi-serious comments above dissuade you from writing; I don't bite, and I don't morally censure someone for genuinely trying to clarify his concepts for himself, however convoluted his path.
``How do you know that your senses provide you with valid information about reality? How do you know that your senses do not distort reality instead of perceiving it truly and accurately?''
Before reading on, consider what you have read above and think about how you would address this sophisticated sounding argument. Then read on.
We can address such a challenge using the Socratic method -- we ask more fundamental counter-questions. How does the questioner know there is even such a thing as reality?
How does he know that there is such a thing as valid information, by which standard he can call other information invalid? What do these questions mean? What does it mean to know something? Each of these points is more basic than the original question.
To even phrase the original question, the questioner must know that I have senses. Given his skeptical attitude, one genuinely wonders how he was able to reach this conclusion with any degree of certainty.
True, we could discuss each of these things. The point is that the original question could never be a fundamental point of disagreement between two logical people because it distorts the hierarchical structure of knowledge. Why then do they bring it up instead of these more fundamental issues? Simple, they are counting on you not to notice their deception. This is a common technique of illogic.
To what is one comparing the evidence of the senses when he judges it inaccurate? What standard of comparison is there other than reality?
If the questioner proceeded honestly, he would start by considering how you know you have senses and how he knows that you have senses. He would first have to establish that you do, in fact, have senses before he could dispute their ability to perceive reality. He would also have to establish that there is a reality for you not to perceive. If you force him to do so and proceed logically and sequentially in the development of his concepts, you will find that the original mish-mash could never even come up.
On another level of analysis, for him to even think of asking his question meaningfully, he must first understand what it means to know something. Yet his position implies the conclusion that no valid knowledge is possible. How could he know, or even suspect, this? What has he analyzed to conclude that senses are fallible?
The best he can do is to claim that he has perceived some contradiction directly, but to do this is to admit that his knowledge, which he claims accurate, originated from his senses. If he conceived a metaphysical contradiction independent of his senses, to what can he claim his conclusions apply?
Would he deny knowing that he has asked me the question? Or, after I answer it, is he free to deny that I did and that he heard my answer? If so, why should I bother to address it? If there is no accurate perception of reality from which we can begin, there can be no rational discourse.
If he means that my senses perceive some of reality directly, but not all of it, I would agree. I cannot see gamma radiation or radio waves. These are aspects of reality, however, and I can reach them and understand them indirectly by applying reason to the evidence of my senses and by using scientific instrumentation to extend the power of my senses.
Without this ability, and an agreement on its valid correlation with reality, the original criticism could not be leveled. The senses themselves are part of reality and have been developed through evolution to provide me directly with the information about reality that I need most.
Let me also deal with the arguments that the senses are `invalid' because I cannot see behind me or I cannot see all the sides of a tree at once ... a set of railroad tracks appear to converge at a point and they do not ... a pencil in a glass of water appears broken and it is not ... a mountain appears small when you are far away from it ... or whatever.
Such questions ignore the fact that man, his consciousness, and his senses are also part of reality. They have specific identities and specific limitations and bounds. They are arguing that only omniscience, that is, knowledge gained without method, process, effort, or context is valid knowledge. There is no polite way to explain how wrong such an argument is.
Branden answered such objections as follows: If I could see an electron directly and did not have to infer its existence, I could not see mountains directly and would have to infer their existence. If a mountain appeared the same size no matter how far from it I was, I could not tell how far away it was. And so on
. Man's senses operate in a context. They cannot deceive you but they can mislead you. An appeal to the rest of your senses and to your ability to reason, experiment, and learn will allow you to draw valid conclusions about the nature of reality.
Any act of perception involves several elements. There is the object perceived, the sensory mechanism, and possibly a transmission medium. Each of these are aspects of reality that can affect the total resulting perception. Fortunately, man can use his reason, and further perceptions, to isolate the effects of each of these components.
If he still wants to insist that there are aspects of reality not perceivable by the senses, no matter how they are extended by reason and science, I must ask him how HE knows this. If his ideas are not communicable, that is, capable of being understood by reason, he cannot hope to persuade me. If his ideas are not testable and communicable, it is only because they have no implications in reality, for if they did, they could be addressed.
No proposition purporting to say something about the real world carries any intellectual potency unless the world would be one way if it holds and another if it does not. This is the intellectual base for all science and the source of its potency. All scientific constructs leave themselves open to falsification by reality -- they are potent because they can be wrong! This is precisely why scientific theories have `predictive validity'.
To claim that something is not only unknown but unknowable is absurd. To claim this, the speaker must know enough about the nature of the alleged unknowable to know that it exists and that it is permanently beyond the scope of man's advancing knowledge. This is an enormous amount of knowledge, and I sure would like to know how he obtained it about a supposed unknowable. It does not mean anything to claim that something is true but not provable (in principle).
As Peikoff explained, concluding that something is ``true'' is the endpoint of the proof process -- no conceivable process means no conceivable endpoint. In reason, something is only considered ``true'' if it is certain, that is, proven. If we cannot conceive of the possibility of a proof we cannot conceive of ourselves regarding it as true. Thus an unprovable (in principle) premise is literally `inconceivable'.
Each of the three laws of logic (identity, non-contradiction, excluded middle) actually applies to reality. Reality is what it is. Reality contains no contradictions. Reality either is or is not. Each of the laws of logic is a fact of reality and, only derivatively, a law of reason. As laws of reason, meaning must come first. This was the whole point of the digits-of-pi excluded-middle analysis in the preceding essay.
We can now unite logic into our conceptual base. Now that we know what the universe is like, we can analyze what is knowledge and how it is obtained formally. This brings us to epistemology, the study of what valid knowledge is and how it can be obtained and verified.
The method of integrating knowledge about reality is logic, the art of non-contradictory, meaningful identification. The combination of logic and metaphysics tells us that no aspect of reality can be permanently beyond man's comprehension or perception. This brings us to the definition of ``reason'': the application of logic to the facts of reality by a conscious entity.
We require that reason be performed by a conscious entity for two reasons. First, as explained, meaning is prior to reason. Consciousness and meaning are fundamentally linked.
Second, without the freedom to test and verify one's assertions, certainty is impossible. A computer can never be `certain' of anything since it is not free to test its premises. If it is programmed with self-correcting mechanisms based in reality, it will self-correct. If it is programmed with self-deluding mechanisms, it will self-delude. It cannot differentiate these two because it has no fundamental capability to correct errors in its primary programming. Again, only conscious entities possess free will; these two are fundamentally linked.
To say that a computer is incapable of error is to confuse operational error with factual error. I can program my computer to print out ``2+2=5'' over and over. It does not make an error, in the sense that it does exactly what I told it to do. Still, its `conclusions' are clearly factually erroneous. Admittedly, the flaw lies in its programming (placed in it by a conscious entity capable of factual error) and not in the operation of the computer itself -- this is precisely the point.
As a further rejoinder to those who tell me that Objectivism has nothing to contribute to science and math, observe how much Objectivism could contribute to the field of Artificial Intelligence, if those in the field would only listen. For example, the preceding concepts provide the foundation for strong responses to many of the arguments of the proponents of `strong AI' as well as to many of AI's critics.
Here are some exercises to see how well you can manipulate the concepts explained without being manipulated yourself. Feel free to send your efforts to me. I will be more than happy to evaluate them. Each of the invalid arguments below can be refuted based on a clear application of the three laws of logic and an understanding of the nature of reality.
1.Paraphrased from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Scientists say that ghosts don't exist. That is,
they only exist in people's minds. Yet the laws of science only exist in people's minds. They cannot be directly
perceived in nature. Thus if one is to be completely scientific, one should not accept the existence
of either ghosts or the laws of science.
2.From one of logician Raymond Smullyan's books: ``Santa Claus exists if I am not mistaken. This sentence is
certainly true and hence, I am not mistaken and therefore Santa Claus exists.''
3.God is that being than which no greater entity can be conceived. Now either God exists or he does not.
If He does not then a greater entity than God can be conceived, namely one identical except existing. Thus God exists. (Classic)
By the way, it is cheating to respond to this by claiming that you are the greatest entity of which you are capable of conceiving. My sister came up with this response and, while I like it, it avoids finding the actual logical fallacy involved, although it does point to it.
4.God is the most perfect entity imaginable. Perfection includes existence. Thus He must exist. (Classic -- a variant of above.)
Same warning as above. My sister wants to know why perfection includes being male.
5.From one of Raymond Smullyan's books: ``Surely there are unicorns, in concept, but are there existent unicorns? Well, either existent unicorns exist or they do not. But it is impossible for existent unicorns not to exist. Hence they do.''
6.From William F. O'Neill, With Charity Toward None: an Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy (I leave it to your discretion to decide how charitable to be toward this critic):
1.A bad boy is one who is heedless of others.
2.John is heedless of others.
3.Therefore, John is a bad boy.
The reasoning here is valid ... I have retained the same definition of the word ``bad'' throughout the argument.
1.A bad boy is one who is heedless of others.
2.John is heedless of others.
3.But John is NOT a bad boy because I like him.
In this instance, of course, I have been inconsistent, because I have not retained a consistent meaning of the key term ``bad'' throughout the argument ... I have violated the law of identity.
7.An argument made by someone with whom I was debating: ``Your belief in the power of reason can be
sustained only by means of faith. After all, to argue that it is reasonable is circular.''
This one is tough. I would be quite impressed if anyone reasoned it out fully just from the material I presented. Start by asking yourself what faith is and what reason is. That will put you on track.
8.How do you know that you exist? (Classic)
9.From Dr. Albert Ellis, Is Objectivism a Religion?:
``The very concept `exist' is man-made and might well be meaningless to some being from another planet.
All our concepts and realities depend on our perceptual-cognitive apparatus and therefore and not
independently or absolutely provable. The ideas that `existence exists', `existence is identity', and `A is A' are
all man-made notions that could actually disappear from the universe if no man or man-like creatures were
around to think them and `prove' them.''
(Believe it or not, Dr. Ellis presents this as a serious philosophical argument! If we had the space or the stomach, I could present dozens more from this same source.)
10.From James D. McCawley, ``The Dark Side of Reason,'' Critical Review, Summer 1990:
``In the version of logic that currently rules as `standard' among Western philosophers, one can prove many results that are widely regarded as counterintuitive, such as the theorem that from contradictory premises one can draw any conclusion at all, even one to which the original premises are irrelevant ... Reason does not establish that a conclusion is true, but at most that it involves no errors beyond those that one is already committed to.''
(James McCawley is discussing favorably Paul Feyerabend's book Farewell to Reason, this book and this article thoroughly demolish a straw man; what they are discussing is not reason. (That is a big hint, by the way.))
11.One of Zeno's classic paradoxes of motion:
``In a race between the fleet Achilles and the slow Tortoise, we give the Tortoise a small head start. Now, when we begin the race, Achilles must reach the Tortoise's starting position prior to overtaking him. At this point, the Tortoise will have moved ahead a small distance and the original situation has returned. Thus Achilles can never catch up to or pass the Tortoise.''
This ancient Greek conundrum has been addressed by philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians through the ages but rarely in its essentials. It has a very satisfying resolution via pure reality considerations. Believe it or not, Quantum Mechanical principles are relevant! You will first have to appreciate why the usual finite-sum-of-an-infinite-series type of mathematical analyses miss the mark.
12.From Robert J. Kolker, in a letter to me:
``On three occasions I had conversations with him [Leonard Peikoff], when he was a guest on the David Brudnoy talk show (WBZ in Boston MA). Leonard usually shows up as a guest with David around April, when he (Leonard) makes his Ford Hall Forum appearance at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.
On those occasions I discussed, of all things, Quantum Electrodynamics. Leonard rejects Quantum Electrodynamics on the grounds that the law of the excluded middle is violated. This is certainly the case when the logic of the split aperture experiment is analyzed. Sure enough, particles such as photons and electrons which are very localized on detection, show global behavior on transmission. The famous split aperture experiments imply that the particles go through two holes to produce the interference effects, and are therefore in two places at once. Leonard objects to this, and says it's absurd and self-contradictory.
Be that as it may, as I have pointed out to L.P., Quantum Electrodynamics, as a physical theory, has been world class for over 70 years. In addition to predicting accurately and accounting for all phenomena dealt with by Maxwell's theory of electromagnetics fields, QED also correctly deals with the quantum states of atoms, and gives an account of why our tushies don't go through the chairs we sit on. Classical Electrodynamics, clearly based on entities which conform to Aristotle's logical dicta, predicts that atoms will soon collapse since the electrons moving about the nucleus will radiate away their mass, and collapse into the nucleus. This is simply not the case.
So here we have an interesting (apparent) contradiction. In this corner wearing a toga, is Aristotle's tertium non datur, and in that corner (with some probability as given by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) is QED which predicts electromagnetic phenomena bang on to 15 decimal places. Being the sort of thinker I am, I go with facts supported by experiment, and conclude that Aristotle's logical postulates are not metaphysically or ontologically valid, but have limited usefulness in various domains of discourse.''
(Robert's errors flow immediately from Peikoff's. Both Kolker and Peikoff, in different ways, artificially restrict the possible scope of reality. If, for example, the concept of `location' is not perfectly valid, as presently understood, on a microscopic scale, so what? A new concept will replace it on the micro scale. It will still be an excellent approximation on the macro scale. Nothing in Metaphysics or Epistemology will change, and therefore, nothing in philosophy will change. Philosophy, and hence Peikoff speaking in its name, should have remained silent. Kolker, taking Peikoff's lead, adheres to the concept of the excluded middle in a case where the terms being used are not actually meaningful. I leave the details for you to work out.
Mr. Kolker and I have exchanged several letters. He has a talent for raising disturbing questions that demand deep insight.)
Do not expect to get all of these immediately. Some are relatively obvious, others quite difficult. In fact, some respected intellectuals still fall on a few of these. See how potent the laws of logic and a commitment to reality really are; use these for yourself. Money back if not satisfied.
I look forward to your analyses and any similar problems you would like to present. Much of the direction this forum takes is up to you. I will not know what is unclear to you and what needs deeper treatment unless you tell me. If you do not understand something, chances are you are not alone. If all of you keep quiet, none benefit. Most welcome are any reasoned challenges to the concepts being developed. That is how one hones one's thinking and solidifies one's knowledge.
The next discussion will deal with some of the details of formal epistemology, the meaning of concepts such as ``meaning'' and ``concept'' and the law of causality. We will also discuss the specific method of operation of man's conceptual faculty. A familiarity with these ideas is important to allow you to defend man's cognitive ability from philosophical attacks.
Logic applied to reality.
The nature of the universe
Objective reality. Without objective reality, rational discourse is not possible.
Method of understanding reality
Perception and reason
Glimpses of reality. An automatic integration of sensory data.
Contradictions in reality
The study of the nature of reality.
The study of what is knowledge and how man can obtain it.
Introduction to Objectivism
Logic quiz answers, Part I
April 10, 1993
Last modified: September 9, 1995
Marko Tervio firstname.lastname@example.org sent me his solutions to several of the problems at the end of the last essay. Most of them are excellent. He also posed a new problem that I have added to the list.
Indented regions contain the questions from the last essay. The following text is from Mr. Tervio's letter. Lines in italics are my comments.
1. Paraphrased from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Scientists say that ghosts don't exist. That is, they only exist in people's minds. Yet the laws of science only exist in people's minds. They cannot be directly perceived in nature. Thus if one is to be completely scientific, one should not accept the existence of either ghosts or the laws of science.
If a thing exists in someone's mind, it is a thought. If a thought of something exists in someone's mind it doesn't mean that that something automatically exists as a physical entity in reality. A ghost is an example of this. I think about a ghost, a thought of a ghost exists, a thought being a set of (in this case false) information in my brain. My thinking of it doesn't physically create it from nothing. The laws of science in peoples' minds are information about reality, based on careful and thoroughly investigated perceptions of reality. The laws of science are explanations for the behavior of actual physical objects in reality. This behavior can be perceived in reality while ghosts can not be perceived in reality. The writer of Zen has confused the identity of physical objects and of sets of information; thoughts.
The word ``ghost'' is used to refer to both ghosts themselves (which do not exist) and the idea of a ghost (which does). By the way, it is clear from context that this argument is not believed by the author.
2. From one of logician Raymond Smullyan's books: "Santa Claus exists if I am not mistaken. This sentence is certainly true and hence, I am not mistaken and therefore Santa Claus exists."
If R.S. is not mistaken about the truth of the first sentence, he may still be mistaken about other things, such as the existence of Santa Claus. What he really states in the first sentence is not clear, the sentence has no truth value. Mistaken about what?
Precisely. First the phrase ``I am not mistaken'' refers to the first half of the first sentence. Later it refers to the entire sentence.
3. God is that being than which no greater entity can be conceived. Now either God exists or he does not. If He does not then a greater entity than God can be conceived, namely one identical except existing. Thus God exists. (Classic.)
The third sentence is most illogical. If something does not exist its properties can not be compared with others' since it has none. The first sentence can't be claimed to be true unless the existence of God is proven first. And why should there be a limit to how great entities can be conceived. So you can conceive a God, well I can always conceive of a bigger God! If a certain entity can be conceived it doesn't turn that concept into a real physical entity. I can, by the way, conceive of a 7-headed dragon that eats gods for breakfast...
The words ``being'' and ``entity'' are ascribed to the `concept' god without justification. One cannot arbitrarily posit that something is a being or entity without evidence. Also, the first sentence has no clear meaning. To define is to limit, and this does not.
Since the term ``god'' has not yet been given precise meaning (in fact it does not yet have any meaning at all), the law of the excluded middle cannot validly be applied to it. Thus the second sentence is also in error. Again we say, as emphasized in previous essays, that laws of logic cannot be applied when meaning is excluded.
It is very dangerous to compare existent entities to non-existent non-entities. To form a comparison between two things it must first be established that they both are, in fact, things. Non-existent non-entities do not qualify.
If you feel whimsical you can always respond as follows: ``Consider a being greater than god. This being clearly cannot exist because god is the greatest being that exists. So here we have a being greater than god that doesn't even exist!''
4. God is the most perfect entity imaginable. Perfection includes existence. Thus He must exist. (Classic -- a variant of above.)
Explain why and how God is the most perfect entity imaginable. Perfect in what? I can imagine a circle and it is most perfectly round, actually it is indefinitely perfectly round, how could anything be more perfect in anything than a circle is in its absolute roundness? Is circle God? The word imaginable is important here. If something is imaginable (everything is) that only makes it a thought. If He is to you the most perfect entity imaginable than he does exist, and he is a thought in your imagination, a number of brain cells turned on and off in a certain pattern, information. Perfection of an imaginable entity includes existence as an imaginable entity.
Good. An analysis of the intended usage of the word ``perfect'' shows that the question of god's existence is being begged.
5. From one of Raymond Smullyan's books: ``Surely there are unicorns, in concept, but are there existent unicorns? Well, either existent unicorns exist or they do not. But it is impossible for existent unicorns not to exist. Hence they do.''
This is a lot like (1). The existence of a concept, a thought and the existence of a physical entity are deliberately confused here. It would be impossible for existent unicorns not to exist. The fact that this sentence is true does not in any way create existent unicorns, although R.S. seems to think so. He's just trying to show what kind of sentences illogic can produce, isn't he?
R.S. presents this as erroneous reasoning.
The statement ``existing unicorns exist'' is a tautology stating only that before an entity can be considered an ``existing unicorn'' it must first be established that it exists. This does not mean that any entities so qualify.
Consider the phrase, ``A car has doors.'' This means all cars (or, if you prefer, cars in general) have doors. Arguably, this sentence would be vacuously true if no cars existed. Now consider the following, ``A car is in my garage.'' This means at least one car is in my garage. This sentence could not be true if no cars existed. Even the word ``an'' can be misused!
8. How do you know that you exist? (Classic)
Only existent entities can have properties. Nonexistence can't have properties. Consciousness is a property that I have since I am thinking about this question. Therefore I exist. How do self-transcenders refute this?
Excellent. I don't know how self-transcenders refute this. They try, though. Mostly they just say that self-transcendence is one of those truths that defies human understanding. I agree with them, except for the inclusion of the word ``truth''.
I suppose their next question in response to ``consciousness is a property I have since I am thinking about this question'' would be ``how do you know that you are thinking about this question?'' There is just no pleasing some people.
I would answer the original problem as follows:
``Only existent entities can question, know, reason, and think. Since I do all of these, I exist. The knowledge that I exist is implicit in every percept or concept that I have. All of this is obvious upon introspection and directly available to any human being. If you claim that you do not know this, you are either lying or hopelessly muddled.''
11. One of Zeno's classic paradoxes of motion: ``In a race between the fleet Achilles and the slow Tortoise, we give the Tortoise a small head start. Now, when we begin the race, Achilles must reach the Tortoise's starting position prior to overtaking him. At this point, the Tortoise will have moved ahead a small distance and the original situation has returned. Thus Achilles can never catch up to or pass the Tortoise.''
This paragraph includes the unstated assumption that the Tortoise moves at a constant speed, whereas Achilles slows down more the closer he gets to the Tortoise. If both the Tortoise and Achilles move at a constant speed and Achilles is faster then the total distance run by Achilles exceeds the total distance run by the Tortoise at a constantly growing length. Ultimately, that length equals and exceeds that of the Tortoise's head start.
I think this is Mr. Tervio's weakest response.
I don't see where the paragraph makes the assumption of variable speed for Achilles. Both Achilles and the Tortoise move at different but constant speeds. When Achilles reaches the Tortoise's starting position, the Tortoise will have moved ahead some small but finite amount. Now Achilles, still travelling at his original speed, must reach the Tortoise's new position before he can overtake the Tortoise, but by the time he gets there, the Tortoise has moved ahead. The original situation keeps recurring.
Achilles can only pass the Tortoise after he has performed an infinite number of such catch-ups -- if we accept the mathematical model implied in the problem.
This problem is an example of what I call ``eating the recipe.'' The mathematical model of motion used herein (continuous motion in continuous time) is valid so long as it does not give results that conflict with reality. Here it does. Do we question reality or the model?
Some philosophers with a well-justified abhorrence of existent infinities indeed could find no resolution other than to declare motion impossible -- an illusion of the senses. Such a leap is not required.
Let us postulate an alternate mathematical model of motion that is consistent (to my knowledge) with all currently known physical theory and observation. Time flows in tiny quanta (a tiny fraction of a trillionth of a second) and motion takes place in tiny jumps (a tiny fraction of a trillionth of an atomic radius). One quantum length per quantum time equals the speed of light.
Now, Achilles moves forward a quantum length a greater percentage of quantum times than the Tortoise. At any given point he is an integral number of quantum lengths behind. At some point, he will be one quantum length behind. At each subsequent quantum time there is an increasing probability that the two will wind up at the same `point' next quantum time. Now Achilles has caught up and after further quantum times, he will move ahead.
A mathematical model of motion (or anything else) should be retained so long as it gives correct results. When it fails, reject it not reality. To do otherwise it to eat the recipe.
I am not saying that my specific quantum model should be accepted as fact. There is simply not enough evidence available. Yet, the continuous model certainly should not -- it contradicts observation and requires the acceptance of existent infinities, a self-contradictory notion. Imagine if the Greeks had used Zeno's paradox to predict `atomistic' quantized motion! They would have postulated quantum theory and reality considerations could have justified it.
Let me briefly address the mathematical finite-sum-of-an-infinite-series answers: Those answers only replace the problem of how Achilles will pass the Tortoise with the equally difficult problem of how Achilles is expected to actually complete an infinite number of steps to reach that finite sum. We understand that a series approaches a limit; it does not ever reach it and pass it! It was precisely to clean up much nonsense about infinitesimals and actual performance of an infinite number of operations that calculus was rigorized.
12. [Peikoff on Quantum Electrodynamics]
If a theory can be accurately used to predict phenomena it still doesn't mean that the theory is absolutely correct. That the sun orbits the earth once every 24 hours was an excellent theory in its time. It was able to accurately predict the time of sunrise and sunset for millennia. From a certain, limited viewpoint of men it seemed to be true, the same can be true with Quantum Electrodynamics today.
There are aspects at the subatomic level that man can not yet understand or maybe even perceive fully. While scientists don't know all the things behind the phenomena they can see many of its consequences and create working theories based on the observations they've been able to make. If a particle appears to be in two locations at the same time then are we sure that we fully understood and knew the nature of that particle in the first place when it was all in one location?
Concepts such as ``position'' (as an X, Y, and Z coordinate) and ``velocity'' (as a numerical speed and a direction) are mathematical models. ``Existence'' and ``identity'' are not. If our naive notions of position and velocity turn out to be only approximations and not valid on a micro scale, we will replace them with better ones. If QED tried to claim that electrons did not exist, had no nature, or were whatever people wanted them to be, then philosophers would need to have a word with them!
Such concepts as ``position'', ``momentum'', ``mass'', and so on are not necessarily valid outside the sphere in which they were created, that is, they are not automatically valid in every new situation without weighing evidence. Such postulates as "existence", ``identity'', and ``consciousness'' are already proven beyond all doubt and no contrary evidence has ever appeared or can appear. Such evidence `appearing' would itself subsume all three postulates! Existence, identity, and consciousness are the very preconditions for the presence of evidence.
As our sphere of experience grows, some of our concepts will need refinement. If we ever encounter other sentient life forms, for example, it is possible that our concepts ``man'', ``intelligence'', and ``sentient'' may need refinement to be useful in this new sphere of experience. They will still be fully valid in the sphere in which they were derived.
Mr. Tervio included the following `argument' that he heard from a theist. Consider it problem number 13:
``I've heard Him while I've been asleep. He spoke to me in a dream. So God is not unknowable to me. He is unknowable to you however, since you refuse to believe in Him. The only way He affects this world is that he tells truly believing people how to live right. In that way He is unknowable to non-believers. Only after you die will He affect you directly, in the other world. The other world can not be directly perceived from here, only the other way around. I don't claim that believing in God and praying will make you win the lottery or save your this life in a plane crash, all I claim is that it would make you happier in the afterlife.
You may deny that I have been contacted by God in dreams since dreams can't be documented. But you can never prove the non-existence of God and the afterlife. Why would the information that my (and many other peoples', too) hearing sense has received be viewed less credibly than others?' You haven't seen the moonflights yourself either and yet you believe in them.''
He also suggested that it would be reasonable for me to believe in God ``just in case'' he exists (!), if he doesn't I'll just have lived a righteous life and if he does then I'll be better off after death...
Beautiful! What a potpourri of errors. Where to start?
One may find it ``reasonable'' to believe in god ``just in case'' he exists, but is it possible? Can a human being truly twist himself into believing something because he wants to or calculates it beneficial for him to do so? I certainly cannot!
Analyze how the word `believe' is being used. You are being asked to embrace concepts not just without evidence but without meaning. Where does that leave the rest of your intellectual life, your self-esteem, and your ability to employ reason effectively?
In other words, this argument only works once it is agreed that it is meaningful to discuss the possibility of god's existence. It is impossible to believe something that you do not understand -- unless verbal assent to meaningless words is all that you require of `belief'!
As far as living that way being ``a righteous life,'' the question of god's existence and attributes has been begged. If god exists and he is all good and he told us how to live a righteous life accurately then, if you follow god accurately you will lead a righteous life. Since you presently do not believe any of those things, you cannot be convinced that a belief in god will lead you to a righteous life.
When I discuss morality, you will see what I consider to be a righteous life and why. You will find that it disagrees with the morality of all religions (altruism) in many respects. Since it is derived from reality, and god's claims conflict with it, we have clear reason to doubt assertions of omniscience and omni-benevolence. Those who advocate a morality that is valid and based on reason have no need to appeal to a god or justice in an after-life to buttress it.
There remain many errors in logic and reason to address in this beautiful submission. Some possibilities:
1.Can the concept and nature of a ``righteous life'' come from outside man -- from god? When you hear from him in sleep or in dreams, what if you are instructed, for example, to kill? He did ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. You will find that you do have a concept of morality derived from the value of man's life that even the strictures of a god cannot push aside.
2.If you do choose to embrace the `concept' of god, what else comes with the package? Are you immediately in the realm of prayer, sin, and dependency? If you place a Pascal's Wager, what if god penalizes you for `believing' and for abandoning the highest capabilities (reason) that he has given you?
3.Analyze what it means to rely on other people's senses. What makes the existence of moon-flights you haven't observed different from the existence of a god who hasn't spoken to you?
4.Analyze the consequences of basing beliefs and actions on an after-life rather than understanding and maximizing the only life you do know you have to live. What coercion in this life -- witness the crusades -- could not be justified in the name of an eternal afterlife for those you coerce?
5.Analyze ``you can never prove the non-existence of god and the after-life.'' Where does the burden of proof lie when asked to prove a negative?
6.Most fundamentally, ask for the specific meaning and attributes to be ascribed to the `concept' god. You will soon find that non-understanding is crucial to the `concept'! If something truly specific and understandable is being said, believers will soon find it too confining. Any contradictions among these non-concepts -- such as why an all-good, all-powerful being permits monstrous evil to exist, or how an all-knowing god managed to imbue man with free will -- simply ``passeth human understanding''. These are transcendent matters for god to know, not for man to question. Some theologists do reject such attributes, but only to permit god to be limited if he so desires. Others frankly state ``if we can understand an attribute, it is not an attribute of God. His attributes are `infinite' [that is, not understandable].''
Objectivism, incidentally, does not devote much attention to the question of the existence of god. It regards the entire matter as a non-issue -- an academic exercise of analyzing an error in reasoning.
If, for example, a claim is made that the universe requires a creator, the response `if god is self-created why not the universe' is an implicit demand for infusion of content into the otherwise non-concept ``god''. If this cannot be done, as is always the case, what is left to discuss?
Objectivists would rather devote their time and energies to the many meaningful, powerful, and relevant considerations that evolve from the underlying premises of Objectivism. They prefer to devote time to positives rather than negatives -- to issues with true relevance to man's existence.
Incidentally, men of religion are not bothered by heated disavowals of god's existence. One theologian has openly stated that god will finally be dead when man becomes indifferent to the issue of his existence or non-existence.
Mr. Tervio included a profile of himself that I thought the rest of you might find interesting:
I'm afraid as a first year College student I don't yet have all the time and effort that a thorough learning from this mailing list would probably take... I am however puzzled by the fact that I'm reading my first real introduction to any philosophy from this marginal (?) but reasonable school of thought. I always thought that philosophers are generally weirdos who have lost contact with reality and who aren't even sure whether they exist or not. I've often kept my mouth shut because they're such respected historical figures. The few philosophic statements I've heard had made me avoid all philosophy, but now I think I'll take a Philosophy course or two next year and challenge the teachers with the principles and methods that I hopefully will learn from this list. (Don't worry, I won't claim to represent `objectivism').
Don't worry about ``representing objectivism''. Represent meaning, reason, and reality -- no Objectivist could do more.
Unfortunately, a lot of philosophers are weirdos who have lost contact (more precisely, never acknowledged contact) with reality. I always wondered what it was they claimed their arguments referred to.
Give 'em hell, Mr. Tervio!
One word of warning though: I wouldn't advise anyone to take a class when they expect to disagree with the professor openly. It just annoys the rest of the class; most only want to get a good grade and don't care what's true and what's false -- what's true is what the professor will grade as truth. If you cannot keep silent, make your comments brief and powerful, then try to shut up.
Finally, Mr. Tervio included the following, excellent signature:
Ask not what you can do for your country
Ask what you can do for you
And how your country can stop preventing you from doing that
Introduction to Objectivism
Logic quiz answers, Part II
Last modified: September 9, 1995
I hope you have given some thought to the logic problems presented in the last essay. Many of these can be analyzed at different levels of specificity, as we have seen. There is no one right way to expose the flaws.
Here are my solutions to the unadressed problems.
6. From William F. O'Neill, With Charity Toward None: an Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy (I leave it to your discretion to decide how charitable to be toward this critic):
1.A bad boy is one who is heedless of others.
2.John is heedless of others.
3.Therefore, John is a bad boy
The reasoning here is valid ... I have retained the same definition of the word "bad" throughout the argument.
1.A bad boy is one who is heedless of others.
2.John is heedless of others.
3.But John is NOT a bad boy because I like him.
In this instance, of course, I have been inconsistent, because I have not retained a consistent meaning of the key term "bad" throughout the argument ... I have violated the law of identity.
A false claim in formal logic can often be exposed by substituting simpler claims for complex ones and checking if the answers match common sense. For example, re-writing Mr. O'Neill's first argument:
1.An elephant is an animal that has four feet.
2.My pet has four feet.
3.Therefore my pet is an elephant.
(My pet happens to be a cat named Schroedinger.) Re-writing Mr. O'Neill's second argument:
1.A zebra is an animal that is black and white.
2.My pet is black and white.
3.But my pet is NOT a zebra because it isn't striped.
A reasoned argument must work at both the level of form and the level of meaning. Substituting simpler claims, particularly in a syllogistic argument, is a quick way to expose errors of form.
How are we to interpret "a bad boy is one who is heedless of others"? The usual interpretation is that if John is not heedless of others he is excluded from the category of bad boys and not that everyone who is heedless of others is automatically a bad boy.
Mr. O'Neill's first argument could equally well be demonstrated formally false by a Venn diagram. We need the hidden assumption "John is a boy" [which may or may not be true] before John falls into the 'bad boy' side of the 'bad boy / not bad boy' partition.
In both his first and second arguments, Mr. O'Neill basis his analysis on the supposed 'meaning', consistently or inconsistently used, of the word 'bad'. Yet, 'bad boy' is never partitioned into the categories 'bad' and 'boy', so the question of the meaning of 'bad' never arises as the concept never appears in isolation.
7. An argument made by someone with whom I was debating: ``Your belief in the power of reason can be sustained only by means of faith. After all, to argue that it is reasonable is circular.''
Faith and reason are two mutually exclusive epistemological methods. 'Faith' refers to beliefs held without sensory evidence and logical deduction (or in contradiction to such evidence). 'Reason' refers to beliefs held on the basis of sensory and logical evidence. One can no more have faith in ideas derived by reason than one can have a reason to accept ideas on faith.
How ironic that the argument is an appeal to reason (to the circular argument fallacy) that explicitly denounces the validity of reason itself. How would the person posing this argument answer the claim that there is nothing wrong with circular reasoning? Would he say I was being unreasonable?
George Smith called the basis of this argument the ``toolbox theory.'' Reason and faith are both cognitive tools and man, supposedly, picks the most appropriate one for a particular job. But what would be the method for choosing the appropriate tool? On what basis would we determine when to use reason and when to use faith? We would need epistemology to tell us that, and epistemology is based on metaphysics which means observed reality which means ... reason.
Reason is the process for establishing which knowledge claims are, well, reasonable, that is consistent with perceived reality -- no other standard is possible. Reason is not one tool in the cognitive-epistemological toolbox; it is the toolbox.
Every argument in support of faith must face a key issue: As soon as someone has reasons to believe something, it ceases to be an article of faith. Why believe on the basis of faith that which you can prove? Reason, since it presents a criteria for the acceptance of truth claims, demands that we reject any claims not presented with the necessary supporting evidence.
This leaves faith in a bind. Every belief claimed to be held based on faith must either meet or not meet the requirements of reason. Any beliefs that do need not be held on faith; reason is sufficient to establish them. Any beliefs that do not meet the rational-epistemological criteria for acceptance, but which are held on faith, are done in explicit defiance of reason. There is no reconciliation between reason and faith, they are competitors.
The moral analog of the original argument is, ``but aren't all men selfish? After all, they wouldn't have done something if they didn't want to!'
' If this were true, selfishness would cease being a virtue or a vice, any more than allowing the universe to continue to exist is a virtue or a vice.
The terms `faith' and `reason' are most useful in the areas in which they compete. After all, the original argument was an attempt to grant faith an equal footing (or superior status) to reason.
Similarly the terms `selfish' and `self-sacrificing' are most useful in the ethical arenas in which they compete. A person's motivation in performing an action can be to further his own goals or someone else's. The actual benefactor of an act can be the actor or someone else. Look around you, people do act self-destructively. No matter how much they want to self-destruct they still are self-destructing.
These are both attempts at conversion by definition. Redefine `faith' so that it means convinced reason is valid, redefine `selfish' so that it means motivated, and redefine `god' so that it means ultimate reality and the whole world instantly becomes faithful, selfish, and theistic, and no one need even change a single belief in the process. What could be more irrelevant?
9. From Dr. Albert Ellis, Is Objectivism a Religion?: ``The very concept 'exist' is man-made and might well be meaningless to some being from another planet....
Of course the concept `exist' is man-made, but existence itself is a fact of reality. If this ``being from another planet'' were sentient, it is difficult to believe that it could have no concept of `exist'.
To be sentient it must have thoughts and ideas. Every thought and idea carries implicitly with it reference to reality. As David Kelley pointed out, even a false claim (I am Napoleon), is attempting to claim that in actual reality -- as a statement of fact -- I am Napoleon. I cannot imagine any sentient being not having a concept of existence, for such a lack would prohibit it from developing any concepts, making any claims, or having any beliefs -- to what could they refer?
Further, consciousness is a primary and the very existence of thoughts and ideas itself subsumes existence. In a later essay, I expect to discuss in detail the relationship between consciousness and reality.
... All our concepts and [our?] realities depend on our perceptual-cognitive apparatus and therefore and not independently [provable] or absolutely provable.
I added those two words in brackets to expose Dr. Ellis' gambit here. By implication, he attaches concepts to other concepts to which they can never apply. With the bracketed implications specifically denied, nothing important is said. With them affirmed, we are talking nonsense.
Our concepts depend on our perceptual-cognitive apparatus, but reality itself certainly does not. To preface (by implication) the word ``reality'' with the adjective ``our'' simply shows that Dr. Ellis does not understand the meaning and scope of the concept `reality'.
By ``independently provable'' he clearly means proof independent of anyone doing the proving. Here Dr. Ellis demonstrates he doesn't know the meaning of the concept 'proof'. His epistemology in rejecting 'our perceptual-cognitive apparatus' seems to be that of knowledge by osmosis.
What could ``our perceptual-cognitive apparatus'' mean if not our means of conception and out means of cognition. But, Ellis clearly regards this ``apparatus'' as an obstacle to obtaining knowledge about reality. In other words, because we have brains we cannot think; because we have eyes we cannot see. How could the method we have of obtaining something simultaneously be an obstacle that prevents us from obtaining it
Ellis considers ``independently or absolutely provable'' some higher standard of knowledge inaccessible to man. Thus, because man cannot obtain knowledge without thinking and without looking, he cannot obtain knowledge at all. The most powerful rebuttal -- just ask, ``Why?''
Ellis believes that knowledge obtained without a means of obtaining it (were such a thing possible) would be better than knowledge obtained by some specific means. I don't know what it would mean to obtain an ``independent'' proof when he means independent of me, but I don't think I would find it better than reasoned knowledge.
The ideas that `existence exists', `existence is identity', and `A is A' are all man-made notions that could actually disappear from the universe if no man or man-like creatures were around to think them and `prove' them.''
Well, the ideas would disappear if no one were around to think them and prove them, but if people can prove them now then they are true, period. This is what ``proof'' means. The ideas are man-made, the facts to which they refer are not.
Ellis simultaneously regards man as omnipotent -- the creator of existence and identity -- and epistemologically impotent -- unable to obtain knowledge without going through a process of obtaining it and thus unable to obtain `real' knowledge. Man is neither. He is a resident of reality and can obtain knowledge through the use of his perceptual-cognitive apparatus, that is, his brain and his body.
10. From James D. McCawley, ``The Dark Side of Reason,'' Critical Review, Summer 1990: ``In the version of logic that currently rules as `standard' among Western philosophers, one can prove many results that are widely regarded as counterintuitive, such as the theorem that from contradictory premises one can draw any conclusion at all, even one to which the original premises are irrelevant ...
The author would like to see some type of internal connectivity between `A' and `B' as part of the meaning of `A implies B'; however, he overlooks how completely reasoning from contradictory premises abrogates all reasoning. The very essence of reasoning is the process of drawing non-contradictory inferences from consistent premises. If one's underlying premises are self-contradictory, all bets are off.
Further, formal logic is not equivalent to reason. In formal logic, one can derive any conclusion from a contradiction -- in reality-based reason, there are no contradictions. What better way to show that one cannot derive meaningful results from a contradiction than to show that one can formally derive any results from a contradiction?
Formal logic proceeds without meaning and without intentionality. Throw a wrench into the works (such as a contradiction) and the whole mechanism goes wild. Human minds reasoning are at no such risk. Formal logic is an abstraction of part of reason -- the other part is meaning.
Reason does not establish that a conclusion is true, but at most that it involves no errors beyond those that one is already committed to.''
So if one is committed to no errors, reason does establish that a conclusion is true, right? In other words, reason allows people to derive new true claims from preceding true claims. Nothing else is asserted. No one would claim that a person can reason invalidly, or reason `validly' from false premises, and still reach exclusively correct results.
By the way, there is no dark side of reason, not even in one's emotional life. Consider all of the times another person did something that upset you. If your anger was rational, the action that upset you was not. Only irrationality has a dark side, and like a Moebius strip, that is its only side. Only reason provides light.
11. [Zeno's Paradox]
I have received a communication taking issue with my dismissal of any finite-sum-of-an-infinite-series resolution of Zeno's Paradox. The responder feels that the solution does lie in that direction. Perhaps I should address the issue further.
Such a resolution would say: It's true Achilles must complete an infinite number of steps, but since these steps sum to a finite distance, they can be traversed in a finite time. And since we know that Achilles does overtake the Tortoise, that should end the matter.
One can only appreciate the inadequacy of this response by keeping in mind that we deal with a problem in reality, not a solution to a mathematical exercise. In any mathematical exercise, we need not worry about actually completing an infinite number of operations. For example, we accept that mathematical induction establishes the truth of a statement ``for all integral values of `X''' understanding that what we really mean is for any finite integral value of `X'. This is a legitimate meaningful use of infinity as a defined process.
The rigorization of calculus relieves us of the necessity for completing an infinite number of operations. Those familiar with the history of mathematics are aware of what conceptual absurdities were initially overlooked in deference to the power of calculus before the necessity for a rigorous formulation was appreciated.
The mathematical model explicitly avoids the necessity for completing an infinite number of steps or dealing with existent infinitesimals by rigorously defining sum-of-an-infinite-series, and indeed any limit process, to exclude such operations and entities. The delta-epsilon definition of limit, one of the methods of rigorization, explicitly avoids such operations. We do not `reach' a limit by executing an infinite number of steps. We cannot even talk of reaching a limit, we approach a limit. We define `limit' by an analysis of finite relationships at arbitrarily chosen points.
When we turn to the race as a problem in reality, the method of limits is inadequate if we insist on modelling space as a mathematically continuous existent. We can then no longer avoid the necessity for summing actual existent infinities. The Tortoise is overtaken, and if we insist on summing the series of diminishing distances, we do have an actual infinity to sum. The rigorous theoretic underpinnings of the mathematical model have been undercut by reality itself. The model is no longer applicable. This is the basis for my alternative quantum model resolution.
To appreciate the force of these arguments, we must have a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in any use of `infinity'. Many of the problems in the foundations of mathematics arose from an uncritical acceptance of completed infinities, not just as existents but even as concepts.
As existents, in reality, there is no place for actual infinities and completed infinite processes. These terms are non-concepts and it is one of Objectivism's greatest strengths that it has never wavered from this realization. Conceptually, infinity can only mean `some -- and more', it is a process. No limitations -- a completed infinity -- means no identity, no existent, no reality, no definition, and no meaning.
I would recommend, as a further `exercise', a critical reading of Rudy Rucker's Infinity and the Mind. He explores at length various conceptual, mathematical, and 'actual' infinities. He states that he does not know, but is sympathetic to the possibility, of existent infinities. See if you can find any demonstrations of such entities that survive close scrutiny.
Introduction to Objectivism
Knowledge: Reason and Meaning
Last modified: September 9, 1995
We can now formally introduce Objectivist epistemology. This subject can be summed up by one word, `reason'. Reason, again, is logic applied to reality. Recall from previous essays all that this simple definition implies.
Man is capable of reason, that is, he possesses a rational faculty. This faculty is engaged in the processing, integrating, and acquisition of knowledge. This faculty is reality-based. Its input from reality is man's sensory mechanisms. Its conceptual output is in turn answerable to reality.
Man, along with the higher animals, is capable of a process known as `perception'. This phenomenon occurs when sensory input is integrated into a `percept'.
When a dog sees a bone, an integration of the visual data gathered by its eyes is performed by its perceptual faculty. In other words, the border between the bone and the rest of the dog's sensory field is sharpened and the bone is identified as an object. This perceptualization of raw sensation is further enhanced by integration with present and previous inputs from the other senses. The dog sees/smells/feels a bone, it is aware of an aspect of reality -- a thing.
Man alone, however, has a conceptual faculty. A dog is limited to those things within the direct scope of its senses. A man can chart the operation of a computer system on the back of a napkin.
Concepts do not arise out of nowhere -- concepts derive from reality. In a sense, a concept is an integration of specific aspects of percepts. It is a form of generalization. It is a mental symbol for an integrated whole.
A first-level concept is abstracted from percepts. If I show you a big house, a big dog, and a big tree (providing you have seen small houses, small dogs, and small trees) you can abstract the common attribute of each entity, bigness. You can then isolate bigness from the extent to which it is present in each of the big objects (perceptual wholes) you had seen. Now you have a concept. This concept is grounded in a fact of reality (and hence objective) -- objects can differ in size yet be similar in other ways.
Objectivists will often ask what fact of reality gives rise to a certain concept. For the concept `bigness', this fact is that objects can differ in size while being similar in other ways. The object is the fact of reality. The concept is the abstraction. This is called concept formation by measurement omission. That is, you make a concept out of a bunch of big things by `forgetting' how big they are and only retaining what it means for something to be big.
Second-level concepts are abstracted from first-level concepts and possibly percepts. So long as higher level concepts are traceable to lower level concepts and ultimately to percepts, they are objective and retain meaning. This holds true even in the most advanced realms of mathematical and scientific conceptualization.
Contrary to my example, `bigness' would likely not be a first-level concept. You would probably need concepts for dog, house, and tree to reach `bigness' in the manner described above. If I showed you two trees and a dog and you realized that the two trees had common properties that the dog did not, that would be a first-level concept of `tree'. You could refine the concept later.
To arrive at a concept as sophisticated as `friend', many simpler concepts must be grasped. For example, without concepts such as `self', `others', `affection', `respect', `relationship', and so on, the concept `friend' is not possible.
Yet, man's mind is only capable of holding a small number of concepts `actively' at a time. How then can we grasp a concept as sophisticated as `friend' which relies on so many concepts each of which rely on lower-level concepts? The answer is one of man's most powerful conceptual tools: language. We use discrete symbols to encompass and stand for wide conceptual nets. If we ignore the net, we lose the meaning.
A concept has a label or name -- this allows easy retrieval. I could not think about as complex a concept as `justice' without some label for it. I could not even conceive of the concept `justice' without labels for all of the preceding concepts that lead up to it and make it understandable.
This process of concept-naming, or language, greatly extends the power of man's conceptual faculty and allows the process of deriving concepts from prior concepts to proceed without limit, the lowest-level concepts can be temporarily ignored while processing the higher-level concepts. Language is only secondarily a social tool. Its primary function is to enhance the power of the individual mind.
Meaning, however, is a concept that you cannot define in terms of simpler concepts. Meaning, as we have seen, is prior to any logical manipulations. Meaning is prior to (or the first law of) reason. It is the basis for all concepts and the foundation for valid reasoning.
Man forms percepts automatically. Try not to integrate what you perceive; you cannot avoid it. Try to see the room you are in as patches of color and not objects; you cannot do so. But man forms concepts and manipulates them only by choice. Deep thinking requires concentrated effort. For Objectivism, the foundation of volition -- free will -- is to be found here, in the choice to think or not to think, the choice to reason or to evade, to focus or to blur.
All of you have (I hope) automated some level of conceptual thought. You will find that when you have a few large words in front of you, reading them is automatic. You are in the habit of thinking, the habit of processing knowledge. The more you do it, the easier and more automatic it becomes and the freer you become to proceed volitionally to still higher-level concepts.
Epistemology is the field of philosophy that deals with the methods and standards for acquiring and validating concepts. It allows us to classify a claim as impossible (or meaningless), possible, likely (probable), or certain (true or proven).
The first category includes claims that conflict with already known information as well as assertions for which no proof is conceivable in principle. The middle two are reserved for claims part-way towards being proven. If it cannot be conceivable for a claim to be proven, one could not know what might constitute part of a complete proof. Any claim in principle unprovable, then, can never be regarded as possible, likely, probable, or true.
All of you have heard the old saw, ``anything is possible?''
Possible, by my dictionary, is defined as ``that can be; capable of existing.'' You judge something capable of existing if its existence is consistent with the nature of the universe as you understand it.
A common misconception is that all things are possible, by default. This is not true; for you to accept that something is possible, it must be so proven. If the existence of some concept contradicts a fact of reality that you know, that concept (as a symbol for reality) is impossible -- cannot be -- is not capable of existing.
This provides us with one method of demolishing the position of the agnostic. Consider what happens if we attempt to define God as an omnipotent entity. This is, of course, not a definition, but it could not even be part of one -- to define means to limit or to identify the borders of.
No fact of reality suggests or supports the existence of power without limit, nor could any; any finite demonstration could suggest only finite power. The concept of power, to have identity, must have limits. Thus the existence of an omnipotent being is impossible. In fact, to define god as an omnipotent being is to commit a stolen concept fallacy, to be a `being' is to have a precise identity, to have precise limits. There is no foundation in reality for the possibility of any other kind of being.
The agnostic, in the name of fair-mindedness and even-handedness commits an act of intellectual renunciation. He lends equal weight to the rational and the irrational, the conceivable and the inconceivable.
A god so `defined' is literally inconceivable -- could not be. The `concept' lacks meaning. It has no conceptual net and hence no epistemologic validity.
Of course, one could also attack the Agnostic's position by pointing out that the potential existence of an ominpotent `entity' able to change the rules at whim is equivalent to the claim that man can be certain of nothing. Once again, proving a claim equivalent to ``man can be certain of nothing'' is equivalent to proving it wrong.
Science is that branch of knowledge which insists on referring all concepts back to reality for searching, detailed, quantitative verification and prediction -- and potential falsification.
Occam's Razor is a principle of science. It says that when you have certain sensory evidence and you have multiple theories that explain it, you should prefer the simplest one. Thou shalt not multiply concepts beyond necessity.
From any claim and set of evidence to support it, a more complex claim can be formed that is also consistent with the evidence. For example, suppose one is given an enormous body of experimental data to show that the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between any two objects. If the largest distance tested in the experiment is 20 light years, one can postulate that the force of gravity acts as proposed up to 30 light years, and then gets stronger as the distance is increased.
Raymond Smullyan and Martin Gardner have discussed the term ``grue,'' meaning green until the year 2001 AD and then blue. Which claim has greater evidence to support it: ``All emeralds are green'' or ``All emeralds are grue?'' Occam's razor is an absolutely necessary part of epistemology.
A positive claim is a specific existence claim or claim about the nature of reality. Positive claims require evidence. If someone asserts a positive claim and someone else asserts the corresponding negative claim, absent evidence, one must side with the negative claim.
As Branden puts it: If someone were to argue that the side of the moon that we cannot see is made of flower gardens and Coca-Cola factories, you would ask him to present evidence. If his evidence consisted solely of the argument that you could not disprove his claim, You would be justified in never speaking to him again. (Obviously, Branden said this some time ago, we now have ammunition to counter this claim specifically)
If an observer were to watch this exchange and conclude that he had made a claim that he could not prove, but you could not disprove it either so the matter is not settled, the observer would be committing a gross epistemological error. He would be giving equal weight to a positive claim and a negative claim.
By the way, the corresponding negative claim would be, ``I do not know what the far side of the moon is made out of.'' That is the claim we must side with absent evidence.
The American legal tradition contains a concept of `innocent until proven guilty'. This has a valid epistemologic base. If I claim your guilt, I make a positive claim, and it is incumbent upon me to prove it. If you assert your innocence, you are not making a positive claim. You need not prove that negative.
As Branden explained: Imagine if you are put on trial for murder. You cannot provide an alibi, no one will tell you when the murder was committed. You cannot prove you were never anywhere near the site of the murder, you do not know where the murder was committed. You cannot prove that you did not know the alleged victim, no one will tell you who the victim is. You cannot show that you had no motive, no one will tell you what motive the known facts of the crime suggest. The only `proof' consists of the fact that you cannot disprove that you are a murderer.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the actions of the prosecutor in this case would be the actions of a jury member who regarded both sides as on equal footing. Both sides do have equal evidence, none. Again, such a juror commits an epistemological error by giving equal weight to an arbitrary positive claim and its corresponding negative claim. Here we see baldly the evil of the agnostic position.
This brings up an important point regarding human cognition. Human languages use a form of shorthand. The claim ``2+2=4'' is shorthand for a set of claims that run roughly as follows: The statement ``2+2=4'' is meaningful and states a claim that is subject to verification and I am presently satisfied that such verification has been performed. Such shorthand is convenient both linguistically and conceptually, but we must not forget that all of our claims must be based in reality and man's means of cognition.
Thus, to deny someone's claim that ``2+2=4'' you need not actually disprove that 2+2=4! You can also choose to disprove the implied claims of meaningfulness and verification. By so doing, you render it impossible for someone to validly assert that ``2+2=4.''
If you know any agnostics, present the above arguments to them. Chances are they have never reasoned through the true nature of their `impartiality'.
Lastly, we have the law of causality. This principle states that the actions, interactions, or transformations possible to an entity are determined by that entity's specific identity. A piano can be played but a thought cannot. A boy can grow up to be a man but a rock cannot.
The same standard of evidence discussed earlier for existence claims or attribute claims also applies to causal claims. An action cannot be posited as possible to an entity without some basis in reality. A claim that some entity is not known to be capable of a specific action or transformation is a negative claim. It has priority over positive causal claims. One need not disprove that a certain astronomic configuration adversely affects the consequences of our actions.
The law of causality also states that actions are only possible to entities. The concept of an act pre-supposes that which acts. There are no causes, effects, changes, or consequences without entities to cause, affect and be affected, change, or suffer consequences.
To ask for the cause of an existent is to ask for that configuration of other entities that must be present before the entity in question can be said to exist, or certain related attributes actualized.
This is a deep question in reality. With each scientific revolution, our conception of identity and causality is sharpened. What are we to make, for example, of such quantum mechanical concepts as `time-reversed causality'?
Right now, those words should just be nonsense syllables to us. If we infuse specific meaning into these words, they become available to reason, but a consistent complex integration of many related concepts is needed as well as an ongoing appeal back to reality. This is the agenda of science.
My frequent reference to quantum mechanics is not accidental. Quantum Electrodynamics and Chromodynamics just happen to be the most precise quantitatively verifiable laws in all of science. In every applicable branch of science (and this means every area to which it has been applied -- solid-state physics, chemical bonding, nuclear interactions, laser physics, super-conductivity, astrophysics, and too many others to name) every presently testable prediction has been verified to multiple decimal places, limited only by the accuracy of the available measuring equipment.
It is one of the grandest triumphs of the mind of man. It is a model and showpiece for the efficacy of human thought. If it seems to lead to contradictory consequences then, as Ayn Rand would say, ``check your premises.'' There are no contradictions in reality; there may be in trying to extend previously workable concepts beyond their original conceptual net -- form new ones if necessary.
At this point in our discussion, I simply want to point out that the relationship between reality and causality is unidirectional. Causality is embedded in reality -- in what exists -- and not the converse. Quantum mechanical observations of `reverse causality' do not violate some a priori concept of causality, for Objectivists nothing is a priori -- we infer everything from perception of reality.
Quantum Mechanical constructs may, however, be telling us something deep about the nature of reality -- the identity of existence. That is for the future of science. No contradiction, however, exists in reality; what exists exists.
Those interested in more detail about Objectivist epistemology will enjoy Rand's work, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand has an excellent step-by-step discussion of concept formation and is a superb introduction to Objectivism in general.
Introduction to Objectivism
Ethics: Coulds, Shoulds, and Oughts
Last Modified: September 9, 1995
We now turn to the most controversial aspect of Objectivism, its ethics. The term `ethics' is synonymous with morality. Ethics is the study of what people ought to do.
The source of controversy for Objectivism's ethics is its conflict with religion. In truth, it is Objectivism's metaphysics and epistemology that are in greatest conflict with religion. If reality is only what (it) is and man is able to understand it, whence god? Yet, since most religious people are convinced of philosophy's impotence, it is only the ethical, the obviously practical, that is within the realm of their perception.
If you try to convince a religious person of the validity of Objectivism's ethics, you will quickly be reduced to issues of epistemology and then metaphysics. A rational ethics cannot be based on an epistemology of revelation and eternal ignorance or a metaphysics of illusion. Religion promulgates rules. It does not evaluate their validity upon any basis other than god's supposed will. The word for this is dogma and it is quite accurate.
In fact, a valid theory of ethics can only flow from a metaphysics based upon objective reality and an epistemology of reason. It is possible to base one's ethics solely on reality.
Religious ethical systems consist of rules, which one must obey or face consequences imposed by the rule's alleged originator. One is also encouraged to heap guilt upon oneself for disobedience to god. From this we develop the absurdly self-contradictory notion of `sin'.
What is a sin? Disobeying god. Why shouldn't you disobey god? Because it's a sin. But what is actually wrong with disobeying god? No, no, no, you don't understand, ``wrong'' means contrary to god's orders. And so it goes -- there is no connection to reality.
Most people don't take religious morality too literally any more. If they did they could not survive -- it is often precisely this conflict that tortures religion's victims. Unfortunately, their replacement is often worse. One is often left with the vague notion that morality is a necessary evil! Religion counts upon the necessity to smuggle in a little reality for survival to create the emotion of guilt without which the `concept' of sin could not exist.
These ethical systems are usually quite vague. They argue that an act is evil (or at best morally neutral) if it is performed for one's own benefit. They teach that an act's moral value is in proportion to how far from one's own benefit one's motivations in performing the act are. In fact, as Rand observed, the word `selfish' has become nearly synonymous with evil.
It is supposedly moral to give money to a desperate stranger. Yet, if he earns the money, giving it to him is supposedly morally neutral. In fact, this moral creed states that rewarding the deserving is immoral if it deprives the `needier' or non-moral if it does not, while rewarding the unearned is moral.
In effect, this divorces the earned from the deserved and argues that the unearned is often deserved. This is the creed of the parasite and the host. It is a relatively trivial exercise to see that the concept `earned' is being stolen here -- ``earned'' means justly entitled to, and justice is supposed to be a virtue. To ``deserve'' can only mean to have earned, to merit. Religious 'moral' systems are a direct frontal attack upon justice, upon reality and objectivity in human relationships.
Another fundamental contradiction arises here: if it is moral for me to give money to a beggar, is it moral for the beggar to take it? The giving of the unearned logically requires the taking of the unearned. If the transaction is moral, the taking is justified. If you `should' give to me then I `should' take it from you. One requires the other.
Religions cannot wriggle out by saying that only voluntary charity is endorsed. If this were true, our country would not be considering universal health care, we would not have welfare, and so on.
A key observation here is that a creed of the unearned, of parasite and host, could never be a creed of human brotherhood, kindness, or dignity. Ironically, this is exactly how it is portrayed. Unfortunately, as Branden observed, calling torture ``re-education'' cannot turn a concentration camp into a university. Though it is a decade past 1984 its inversion of language lives on.
In addition, it is absurd to base morality on the intentions of the person whose act we are evaluating. For one thing, this would make it impossible to judge whether the actions of another are just. We could never be certain exactly what motivated a particular action, and some actions transgress reality whatever the motivation.
Suppose that a man believes that killing children before they reach the age of maturity guarantees them eternal happiness in heaven -- he believes that no redemption is possible for man's sins, any sin is so horrible as to doom a person to eternal torment, and children are incapable of sin. Suppose he then kills a hundred children, we do not call him a great humanitarian. His intentions are irrelevant, it is only the objective reasonableness of his actions that are important. If we examine his motivations, it is only to condemn their dissociation from reality.
All of these systems are guilty of a stolen concept fallacy. They use the term `ethical' (or `moral' or `should') without considering its genetic roots. The concept of morality only applies to the actions of a man. This is because of certain specific aspects of man's nature. Man's nature as man is the foundation in reality not just for correct ethics but for man's need for ethics.
Many of you who have taken philosophy courses or read philosophical works have heard of the supposed `is-ought' problem. It is claimed that it is a major philosophical problem to go from `is' statements, that is, the facts of reality, to `should' statements, that is, moral pronouncements.
They claim that one's moral axioms must either come from god, mysticism, or whatever source (except reality, which is all that there is) or they say that the choice is arbitrary and they proceed to pick something they like. This approach is based on the implicit assumption that because something ``feels right to you'' it is right. You should already know from earlier essays where this concept comes from and why it is wrong.
An essential has been forgotten; one can only have a clear and valid concept of `should' if something in reality suggested it. What are the genetic roots of the concept `should'?
The fact of reality involved here is that man's survival is not a given; it is not based upon automatic reflexive responses. Man must use his mind, and this process is volitional.
If men did not face choices, they would have no concept of morality. If the results of a man's choices did not matter at all, that is, they did not affect a man's state (or survival), he would have no need of morality.
In sum, the `is-ought' problem is already solved. Certain facts of reality, the nature of man, suggest and give meaning to the term `should'. Failure to acknowledge that the facts of reality have already led to the concept, and thus the meaning, identity, and valid sphere of application of the word `should' constitutes a stolen concept fallacy. Thus, no one can rationally claim that the field of morality is based on anything but objective reality and reason; there is nothing but objective reality for subject matter and nothing but reason to establish truth.
To make choices, one must have a standard of value. As a simple example, to choose between wearing a dark blue, warm coat or a light yellow jacket, one must pick some standard to maximize. If one chooses to wear the warmest coat, one wears the blue one. If one chooses to wear the lightest coat, one chooses the yellow one. Choices cannot be made without some standard of value. A `value' is that which one seeks to acquire and keep.
Once one knows what one's values are, the process of ethics is free from further `ought' issues. The only reasonable definition of the words `should' or `ought' or `must' is that they are used to denote an action consistent with one's values or the highest applicable value. But what is a value?
A living entity must continually act to maintain its life. If it does not, it dies. It continues to exist physically, but its life is gone. The distinction between life and death is perhaps the most fundamental metaphysical distinction among objects in the universe.
A plant is a living entity. It is automatically controlled to further its life as its standard of value. It cannot decide to rip up its roots, turn away from the sun, or grow roots up, leaves underground. If it could decide to do so and did, it would die.
An animal is also a living entity. It is capable of sensation and perception. Still, it is automatically engaged to further its own life. It cannot decide to kill itself, but if it finds itself in a situation in which its internal genetic programming is inadequate, it dies.
Now we come to man, the only entity for which morality is relevant. Man is a living entity, but he can choose to further his life, or not. He faces choices that affect his survival, and the effects matter to him; he faces, conceptually, a fundamental alternative, life or death.
In this context, survival must not be taken to mean pure physical survival. It is man's survival as man which is crucial. If a man is granted bodily survival as a slave, he is right to battle such tyranny even if it results in his physical death. Man does not survive as a man when his only tool for long-term survival, his ability to use his mind to apprehend and respond to reality is denied him.
George Smith wrote,
``The concept of value expresses the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to a living organism, and to say that something is of value to an organism is to say that it is conducive to the life of that organism. When we say that water is of value to a plant, for example, we mean that water is conducive to the life of that plant ... this relationship is objectively demonstrable. The value judgment involved here is true.''
[from Atheism: The Case Against God]
To summarize, `value' denotes an objective relationship between two objects. The valuer must be a living entity. The thing valued can be an object, state, or abstraction.
A ``razor'' is a concept or law that allows one to reject a large amount of invalid reasoning rapidly. Well known razors include ``Occam's Razor' ' which tells us to accept the simplest explanation for a set of facts, and ``Rand's Razor'' which tells us that we must analyze the premises on which a conclusion is based before analyzing the conclusion itself and the reasoning process that generated it.
This brings us to a concept I call ``Katz's Razor'': The question of what one's values `should' be can never arise.
There is no concept of `should' until after there are values. The process of determining man's values is a purely scientific one -- what is essential for human existence? The question is, what is of value to a human? After we have values, we can ask what we should do to attain them. Both the set of rational values and the methods of attaining them originate in reality.
Man possesses no built-in instinctive survival mechanism. He must use his mind to survive. There is no place on earth where a man can survive without exercising his volitional consciousness. Even in a jungle free of predators filled with delicious fruits for the plucking, a man must still decide that when he is hungry, he will eat. He must direct consciously the process of picking the fruits and must put them in his mouth. He must decide which promote his health and which do not.
The exercise of mind is a uniquely individual process. Competence comes only with prolonged use, continued feedback from reality, and after a long `apprenticeship' called childhood. Man cannot survive by species reflex alone. Men possess no group consciousness. Every new idea arises in an individual mind.
The following quotation is from Leonard Peikoff's book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:
A long-standing tradition, stretching from Plato to the present, deprecates the activities involved in human survival as mindless, perceptual- level, ``materialistic'' -- while extolling reason as a ``spiritual'' organ concerned with ``pure'' contemplation. Before the Industrial Revolution, Ayn Rand remarked, this version of the mind-body dichotomy, though thoroughly false, had a certain degree of plausability. If one thinks -- as did most of the ancients -- that all the practical arts have long been discovered and that the process of keeping men alive consists primarily of physical labor, the labor of slaves or peasants repeating the age-old motions of their ancestors, then the pursuit of rational knowledge does indeed appear non-practical. It appears to be an unworldly self-indulgence of the aristocracy or the clergy.
No one can sustain this view today! Man, to survive as man, must use his mind. The dramatic rise in quality of life seen throughout those nations whose governments stay out of the way of progress and the rapid increase in technology show what a fraud this position is.
The opposite of mind is force. While it is true that a man can survive physically for a time by the use of force against other men, it is still his theft of their minds that sustains him.
Objectivist ethics absolutely prohibits the initiation of force or the use of fraud in human relationships. The following quotation is from The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand: ``Man's rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.
The precondition of rational society is the barring of physical force from social relationships -- thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.''
In this context, fraud is considered a variety of physical force. Also, it is important to note that this is not a philosophy of pacifism. Retaliatory or defensive force is not only permitted but often required. By coercion, we mean the use of force or fraud to gain a value. One does not shoot a thief to gain a value.
This point is one of Ayn Rand's great contributions to philosophy -- that one man can violate the rights of another man only by initiating the use of force or fraud against him. All of the rest of the sphere of human action and interaction is incapable of resulting in a rights violation.
It is a corollary of Objectivist ethics that there are no conflicts among rational men. There is a conflict between a thief and his victim, but the thief is not acting rationally. One cannot sustain one's life as a human being by theft. Reality demands of a man that he act upon his own rational judgment; force demands that he act against it. One cannot exist rationally in defiance of reality.
Two rational men who both want the same job have no conflict, they both know that only one of them can get it and accept reality; one does not insist that one gets everything one wants -- one is not in conflict when one does not get everything one wants. If the person who selects who gets the job picks the person less qualified -- acting irrationally -- he may come in conflict with both of the rational men who wanted the job, but they will still not be in conflict with each other.
It is a sad commentary on our world that many consider it ethical to resort to physical force to appropriate the goods produced by the minds of one set of people so that they can be given to another set of people who have not earned them. (The `right' to health care, for example.)
The strength of all laws ultimately rests on the threat (and execution) of physical force against those who violate it. For some laws, this is entirely appropriate. The laws against murder have the effect of, after a suitable procedure, putting the murderer in a prison where he will be confined by physical force. A tax law has the effect of, after a suitable procedure, fining its violators and jailing them if they do not pay the fine. These are clear uses of physical force.
The fact that these procedures seldom run to the end of their course -- most people will comply with a tax law and most violators will pay the fine rather than go to jail -- does not take the force away. If it did, a thief who pointed a gun at my head and demanded my money would not be taking it by force if I complied with his request and he did not actually have to shoot me. The threat of force is equivalent to its execution; the existence of the gun along with my objectively reasonable conclusion that it will be used if I do not comply is sufficient to establish the use of coercion.
If the government is to give out the unearned, it can only do so by seizing from others, by pure physical force, that which they have earned. To do so is, by definition, unjust.
If I am told that every American has a right to `X' where `X' is health care, education, food, a modest income, or any other positive value, I always reply, ``of course, providing they have earned it.'' If the government is to give you a value you have not earned, it must take it from someone else -- most likely someone who has earned it. This will be discussed in great detail in an upcoming essay on Capitalism.
Normative fields are those that contain imperatives. Actually, they contain a single imperative along with a set of laws derived from reality that are useful to attain the imperative.
For example, medicine is a normative field because it tells a doctor what he `should' do. In medicine, we have a single root imperative, ``you should make and keep the patient well'', the rest of medicine consists of laws such as, ``if a patient has a fever and you wish to reduce it, you can give him an alcohol rub.'' Architecture is likewise a normative field with a single root imperative, ``you should build a sound structure.'' Ethics likewise is a normative field because it too has clear-cut goals based upon the reality of man's nature.
A rational ethics consists of scientific laws such as, ``You must eat if you wish to survive.'', ``You must grow food if you wish to eat.'', ``You must build a shelter if you wish to survive a storm'', ``You must think clearly and reason accurately if you are to perceive the world accurately'', along with but a single root imperative, ``You must further your own life as a human being.'' In effect, all of your knowledge gets bundled into your ethical system. Every piece of knowledge you obtain helps you, in one way or another, to determine what you should do. In essence, all knowledge is normative; everything you know carries with it some implication regarding how you should act.
Justice is the virtue of evaluating people's conduct and character accurately and objectively and rendering to each person what he deserves, what he has earned. Justice is rationality in one's affairs involving others -- adherence to reality in the sphere of interpersonal relationships.
Pleasure is the sensation a person experiences when he achieves a value. Note that this sensation does not encompass all of the long-range effects of an action. Eating too many sweets tastes good for a reason, sugar is a source of energy for the body. The ultimate result may well be suffering and pain, this is why man needs his mind -- he must balance his short-term and long-term goals constantly and he must use his mind to allow him to thrive in situations in which his `genetic programming' is inadequate (which is pretty much all situations of significance).
The term ``value'' can be used either to mean that which is beneficial to the survival of an organism or that which one seeks to gain and/or keep. When one is rational, these two definitions present no conflicts.
One criticism often leveled against Objectivism is that its ethical system is essentially one of Hedonism. The term `Hedonism' means an ethical system based on pleasure instead of rules or consciously chosen values, and it comes in two varieties.
The first variety is called `Ethical Hedonism'. This system argues that what is moral, in any context, is whatever gives the moral actor the most pleasure. The problem with this argument is that it forgets that men have control over what gives them pleasure; what a person perceives as his values affects what gives him pleasure. A person feels pleasure when he achieves what he believes are his values. Ethical reasoning tells men how to choose what to consider their values. Ethical Hedonism is silent on this critical point.
Man, in order to practice Ethical Hedonism, must take his already formed perceptions of proper human values as etched in stone and simultaneously as bendable at his whim. Because Ethical Hedonism is powerless to tell men what their values are, it is useless as an ethical system. Further, it even fails to maximize pleasure because a recipe is necessary to maximize pleasure and direct pursuit of what happens to cause one pleasure is not it -- the recipe is pursuit of rational values, that is, to value what is of value.
The second variety is called `Psychological Hedonism'. This position argues that regardless of what people think is right or wrong, they will, in fact, do whatever they believe will give them the most pleasure. This position has several major problems.
To begin with, it is a fact of reality that people often forgo short- term pleasures. The Psychological Hedonist could argue that whenever this happens, people are actually concerned with their long-term pleasure. But this is not what Psychological Hedonism asserts!
Listen to the difference between the following two claims: ``Men will do whatever gives them the most immediate pleasure'' and ``When men decide what to do, they rationally evaluate the situation and choose the option that they believe will ultimately give them the most pleasure.'' Or must one argue that it gives a person maximum immediate pleasure to balance his long-term pleasure with his short-term pleasure?
The first claim is obviously false by introspection. The second is too close to a rational ethical theory to be used to denigrate Objectivist ethics. Both ignore the fact that men have control over what gives them pleasure. There is no in-between.
Even if we accept Psychological Hedonism, we are still left with the need for an ethical system, namely one capable of telling us what is in our `long-term pleasure' best interest. What would the nature of this system be? Clearly, it would be a rational theory of ethics as set forth above.
Second, Psychological Hedonism robs human beings of volition. It argues that humans, in fact, do not have true volitional power -- they automatically choose whatever will give them the most pleasure. Believing this, its adherents cannot argue that the tenets of Psychological Hedonism are in fact true, but only that it gives them the most pleasure to believe and argue that they are true. This is equivalent to the claim that man can be certain of nothing. In essence then, they exclude themselves from the field of logical discussion and argument. (See my earlier arguments about free will)
Pragmatism is the doctrine that men should do whatever works. The problem with this doctrine is that we cannot determine what works and what does not until we have a standard of value for comparing them. As previously discussed, once we have a standard of value their is no further question of what we `should' do. Thus pragmatism is not a system of ethics because it does not tell us what to value and that is the role of ethics.
A person cannot use the excuse that something `worked for him' to justify an unethical action -- he must defend his standard of judgment. Pragmatism does not tell us what our goals are or how we should choose them. If `working' means bringing us closer to our goals, we are left with no way to know what to choose.
Tell any Hedonists that you meet that you tried Hedonism, but it made your life miserable -- they are then either forced to argue that you should reject Hedonism or that you must reject Hedonism. Tell any pragmatists that you tried pragmatism but it just didn't work for you -- they are then forced to argue that you should reject it. Neither of these ethical systems is compatible with an epistemology based on objective truth, so if you have been with me this far, you cannot break here!
The moral code of Objectivism is based on objective reality. It states that the process of determining man's `proper values' is the scientific process of determining what is of value to a man. Pleasure is a corollary of moral conduct, that is, it automatically flows from achieving values. One's choice of what one considers one's values, however, cannot be based on pleasure; the dependency runs precisely in the other direction.
I could discuss these subjects in much more detail, however, the primary alternative to a rational system of ethics (that I know of) is a religious or mystical one, and I do not see any real need to discuss religion further at this point. Suffice it to say that such an `ethic' (or one of secular altruism) is one of arbitrary pronouncements. Nothing in the Objectivist ethical system is arbitrary.
You may hear talk of `subjective ethics'. This is the doctrine that what is right for one person may or may not be right for another. Certainly what is right in one situation may not be right in another situation and two people will seldom be in exactly the same situation, but what does this have to do with ethics? Don't ask me.
If two people are in exactly the same situation and there are no objective differences between them, what happens if we assume that what is right for the first person is not what is right for the second? Remember that no facts of reality can differ between the two people, none. The only thing that `subjective ethics' allows to differ is these people's `preferences'. The crux is, different things `feel right' to each person even though the facts of reality are the same.
It is clearly pathological to believe that because something `feels right' it is right. If it is right it is right. Men can use their feelings as tools, but following one's feelings without the use of one's intellect is a recipe for disaster. `Subjective ethics' claims that reason has no place in ethics. Yet it is only because man is capable of reason that the field of ethics even exists!
By the way, one thing I did not discuss in the essay on Epistemology is the truth status of the arbitrary. An arbitrary statement, one made for no reason whatever -- one in which the words are, in effect, selected at random -- conveys no meaning. Meaning is conveyed when a person carefully selects their words to correspond to concepts which correspond to something in reality. An arbitrary claim is neither true nor false but simply arbitrary. As Peikoff wrote, ``it is as if nothing has been said.''
Note that by ``words selected at random,'' I do not mean to imply that the construct is not gramatically valid. What I really mean is that the concepts and the relationships between them are selected without reference to reality. Remember Branden's, ``the side of the moon we cannot see is filled with flower gardens and Coca Cola factories.''
If anyone reading this buys into a religious foundation for morality, please, please, read George Smith's excellent book Atheism: The Case Against God. I will be more than happy to discuss any questions regarding that book that anyone might have at any time; it is a model of the efficacy of reason. I'm in the soul-saving business, after all -- I value human integrity.
``The moral, the practical, and the happy cannot be sundered.'' Leonard Peikoff
Joel Katz :email@example.com
What is Individualism
by Raymie Stata (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright (C) 1992, Raymie Stata, All Rights Reserved
This is the text of an introductory speech first delivered in January, 1992 at the MIT Radicals for Capitalism, a student group.
As the presidential election nears, we start thinking about the choices we have to make. In the election, we face a basic choice of ``left'' versus ``right.'' Although ``left'' versus ``right'' accurately describes the choice we face in the voting booth, it does not fully describe the landscape of political thought.
A better way of carving up that landscape is into ``collectivism'' versus ``individualism.'' This is not a new dichotomy, but it's been a long time since politicians have talked in such fundamental terms. Instead, they focus on details of implementation-policies, programs, and tax plans-leaving the fundamental issues implicit and confused.
Today I want to escape from election-speak and try to focus for a while on the more fundamental questions. I will define and contrast individualism and collectivism and explore their philosophic underpinnings and their political consequences. Contents:
Defining and contrasting individualism and collectivism
Philosophic implications of individualism and collectivism
Responsibility vs. the safety-net
Egoism vs. altruism
Political implications of individualism and collectivism
Radicals for Capitalism
Defining and contrasting individualism and collectivism
Individualism and collectivism are conflicting views of the nature of humans, society and the relationship between them.
Individualism holds that the individual is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. This view does not deny that societies exist or that people benefit from living in them, but it sees society as a collection of individuals, not something over and above them.
Collectivism holds that the group---the nation, the community, the proletariat, the race, etc.---is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. This view does not deny the reality of the individual. But ultimately, collectivism holds that one's identity is determined by the groups one interacts with, that one's identity is constituted essentially of relationships with others.
Individualists see people dealing primarily with reality; other people are just one aspect of reality. Collectivists see people dealing primarily with other people; reality is dealt with through the mediator of the group; the group, not the individual, is what directly confronts reality.
Individualism holds that every person is an end in himself and that no person should be sacrificed for the sake of another. Collectivism holds that the needs and goals of the individual are subordinate to those of the larger group and should be sacrificed when the collective good so requires.
Individualism holds that the individual is the unit of achievement. While not denying that one person can build on the achievements of others, individualism points out that achievement goes beyond what has already been done; it is something new that is created by the individual.
Collectivism, on the other hand, holds that achievement is a product of society. In this view, an individual is a temporary spokesman for the underlying, collective process of progress.
To further clarify the difference between individualism and collectivism, I'd like to discuss two widespread misconceptions about individualism.
The first misconception is that individualism means isolation---being alone, being outside society. This misconception is reflected in the popular images of ``individualism,'' images that stress being isolated, such as those of the lone cowboy, the fearless gumshoe, and the isolated prairie family. Such images can be exciting and heroic, but isolation is not the essence of individualism.
In fact, the concept of individualism does not make sense in the absence of other human beings. Individualism and collectivism are contrasting views of the relationship between the individual and the group. Individualism is called ``individualism'' not because it exhorts the individual to seek a life apart from others, but because it asserts that the individual, and not the group, is the primary constituent of society.
The belief that individualism means being alone leads people to say that individualism is incompatible with cooperation. If one is too much of an ``individualist,'' people say, one cannot ``get along with groups,'' one is not a good ``team player.'' Actually, a person who doesn't listen to others, the person who would rather do things an inefficient way as long as it's ``my way,'' is not being an ``individualist''---he's being closed minded. A true individualist wants the best for himself, so he seeks out the best, no mater who is the source. To the individualist, the truth is more important than any authority, including himself.
Living in society, cooperating with other people---these are tremendous benefits. Individualism does not deny this. But not all arrangements of living and working with other men are beneficial to the individual; the arrangement faced by American slaves is one example. Individualism is a theory of the conditions under which living and working with others is, in fact, beneficial.
Another widespread misconception about individualism is that it can somehow be mixed with or tempered by collectivism. In this view, neither ``extreme'' individualism nor ``extreme'' collectivism are correct. Rather, wisdom and truth lie somewhere in the middle.
Individualism and collectivism are contradictory positions---there is no middle ground between them. Collectivism maintains that the group is an entity in its own right, a thing that can act upon people. Individualism denies this. Collectivism sees us being influenced by the group; individualism sees us being influenced by other individuals. Collectivism sees us cooperating with the team; individualism, with other people. Collectivism sees us building on the ideas and achievements of society; individualism, on the ideas and achievements of individuals. These are contradictory positions; it's either-or.
To accept the ``balance'' point of view is to accept collectivism. No collectivist has ever said that every single need of every individual must be frustrated for the sake of the society---if so, there wouldn't be any society left to serve. Collectivism is the balance point of view; it is a matter of fine-tuning here and there, constraining individuals when their interests get out of line with the ``good of society.''
Indeed, the main debate between the ``left'' and the ``right'' today is not a debate over collectivism and individualism---its a debate over two forms of collectivism. The ``left'' holds that the needs of society lie in the materialistic realm, so they are into regulating that aspect of individual affairs. The ``right'' holds that the needs of society lie in the spiritual realm, so they are into regulating the spiritual aspect of individual affairs.
Collectivism is, by its nature, an act of balancing the need of the individual against the need of ``society.'' Individualism denies that society has any needs, so the issue of balance is not relevant to it.
Philosophic implications of individualism and collectivism
Both collectivism and individualism rest on certain values and certain assumptions about the nature of man, which is what I want to explore next.
Responsibility vs. the safety-net
The first issue I want to explore is responsibility versus the social safety-net.
A primary element of individualism is individual responsibility. Being responsible is being pro-active, making one's choices consciously and carefully, and accepting accountability for everything one does---or fails to do. An integral part of responsibility is productivity. The individualist recognizes that nothing nature gives men is entirely suited to their survival; rather, humans must work to transform their environment to meet their needs. This is the essence of production. The individualist takes responsibility for his own production; he seeks to ``earn his own way,'' to ``pull his own weight.''
Collectivism doesn't disparage responsibility; but ultimately, collectivism does not hold individuals accountable for the choices they make. Failing to save for retirement, having children one can't afford, making bad investments, becoming addicted to drugs or smoking---these actions are called ``social problems'' that ``society'' has to deal with. Thus, collectivists seek to build a social ``safety-net'' to protect individuals from the choices they make. To collectivism, responsibility is only to be expected of the productive, and consists of doing one's part in keeping the social ``safety-net'' in tact.
Regarding production, collectivism sees society, not individuals, as the agent of production. As a result, wealth belongs to ``society,'' so collectivists have no trouble dreaming up schemes to redistribute wealth according to their visions of ``social justice.''
Egoism vs. altruism
The second issue I want to explore is egoism versus altruism
. Altruism holds ``each man as his brother's keeper;'' in other words, we are each responsible for the health and well-being of others. Clearly, this is a simple statement of the ``safety-net'' theory from above. This is incompatible with individualism, yet many people who are basically individualists uphold altruism as the standard of morality. What's going on?
The problem is wide-spread confusion over the meanings of ``altruism'' and ``egoism.''
The first confusion is to confound altruism with kindness, generosity, and helping other people. Altruism demands more than kindness: it demands sacrifice. The billionaire who contributes $50,000 to a scholarship fund is not acting altruistically; altruism goes beyond simple charity. Altruism is the grocery bagger who contributes $50,000 to the fund, foregoing his own college education so that others may go. Parents who spend a fortune to save their dying child are helping another person, but true altruism would demand that the parents spend their money to save ten other children, sacrificing their own child so that others may live.
The second confusion is to confound selfishness with brutality. The common image of selfishness is the person who runs slip-shod over people in order to achieve arbitrary desires. We are taught that ``selfishness'' consists of dishonesty, theft, even bloodshed, usually for the sake of the whim of the moment.
These two confusions together obscure the possibility of an ethics of non-sacrifice. In this ethics, each man takes responsibility for his own life and happiness, and lets other people do the same. No one sacrifices himself to others, nor sacrifices others to himself. The key word in this approach is earn: each person must earn a living, must earn the love and respect of his peers, must earn the self-esteem and the happiness that make life worth living.
It's this ethics of non-sacrifice that forms a lasting moral foundation for individualism. It's an egoistic ethics in that each person acts to achieve his own happiness. Yet, it's not the brutality usually ascribed to egoism. Indeed, by rejecting sacrifice as such, it represents a revolution in thinking on ethics.
Two asides on the topic of egoism. First, just as individualism doesn't mean being alone, neither does non-sacrificial egoism. Admiration, friendship, love, good-will, charity, generosity: these are wonderful values that a selfishness person would want as part of his life. But these values do not require true sacrifice, and thus are not altruistic in the deepest sense of the word.
Second, I question if brutality, the form of selfishness usually ascribed to egoism, is actually in one's self-interest in practice. Whim worship, dishonesty, theft, exploitation: I would argue that the truly selfish man rejects these, for he knows that happiness and self-esteem can't be stolen at the cost of others: they must be earned through hard work.
The third issue I want to explore is reason.
The philosophic defense of individualism rests on the nature of reason and the role it plays in human life.
Reason is the faculty of conceptual awareness; reason integrates the evidence of the senses into a higher-level of awareness. But beyond simple cognition, reason plays a key role in imagination, emotions, and creativity. Every thing we think, feel, imagine and do is based on our awareness and our thoughts. Our character, personal identity, and history of achievement are defined by our thoughts. Our very survival depends on reason. Our food, clothes, shelter, and medicine---all are products of thought. Reason is at the core of being human.
Reason is individualistic. No person can think for another; thought is an attribute of the individual. One can start with the ideas of another, but each new discovery, each creative step beyond the already known, is a product of the individual. And when an individual does build on the work and ideas of others, he is building on the work of other individuals, not on the ideas of ``society.''
Individualism, then, is based on the fact that humans are rational beings, and that reason is an attribute of the individual. Humans can get together and share the products of reason, which is beneficial, but they cannot share the capacity to think.
Collectivist philosophers go out of their way to attack reason. One broad method of attack is skepticism, the denial that reason even works. This attack is illustrated in bromides like ``you can't be sure of anything.'' A more sophisticated attack on reason aims at turning reason into a product of the group. Each nation, race, economic class, creed, or gender has its own concept, logic, and truth. But in the end, all attacks on reason have a common result: they deny or confuse the role reason plays as the foundation of individualism.
Political implications of individualism and collectivism
The final issue I want to look at are the the political implications of individualism and collectivism.
These implications should be fairly clear. Under collectivism, the individual, in whole or in part, is a means to satisfying the needs of ``society.'' The state is the instrument for organizing people to meet those needs. So it is the state, not the individual, that is sovereign.
Under individualism, the individual is sovereign. The individual is an end in himself, whose cooperation is to be obtain only through voluntary agreement. All people are expected to act as traders, either voluntarily agreeing to interact or going separate ways; it's either ``win-win, or no deal.'' The government is limited strictly to ensuring that coercion is banished from human relations, that ``voluntary'' is really voluntary, that both sides choose freely to deal and both sides live up to their agreements.
Radicals for Capitalism
Since I am representing the group Radicals for Capitalism, I do want to tie capitalism into the discussion so far.
Radicals for Capitalism advocates the philosophy of individualism, and supports capitalism as the only political system compatible with individualism. Unfortunately, the word ``capitalism'' is misunderstood today; everybody seems to mean something different by the word. Many opponents of capitalism blame the market for the result of State interventions in the economy. Many so-called ``capitalists'' mix socialist and interventionist schemes in with free market rhetoric---and call the result Capitalism. Today, ``capitalism'' is much maligned and misunderstood, buried under false allegations.
We want to liberate the term from such baggage. By capitalism we mean: a ``social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.'' ``A system where any and all forms of government intervention in production and trade is abolished, and State and Economics are separated in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of Church and State'' (CUI, p109).
As mentioned earlier, it's a system based on the notion that humans are traders---either voluntarily agreeing to interact or going separate ways---a system in which government is limited strictly to ensuring that coercion is banished from human relations, that ``voluntary'' is really voluntary, that both sides choose freely to deal.
Under capitalism, the government protects rights, including the right to property. Without the right to use and dispose what one has produced, one has no liberty. If individuals can't work and produce towards goals they can't pursue happiness. If one can't consume the product of one's effort, one cannot live. To the degree a government does not protect property rights, an individual is a slave at the mercy of someone or some group.
Capitalism is not a system under which unproductive individuals can leach off the productive ones, whether the ``unproductive'' are the unambitious or politically-connected businessmen. Nor is capitalism a system in which the government acts not as a protector, but as a coercer of productive individuals. There are examples galore of unjust acts committed under the banner of law and justice, for example, when the government takes from one person to feed another, or when government takes taxpayer money to bail out foolhardy bankers.
Unfortunately, our vision of capitalism is not the current state of affairs and has only been approximated in the history of the man kind. No system in the world today is capitalistic to the extent we advocate. All could be, but not without changes; in particular, the wide-spread acceptance of individualism.
I began this talk by mentioning the upcoming election. You might be wondering what the relevance of my words are to that election.
In terms of effecting change, the fundamental issues we've touched on today have a time horizon much longer than the electoral process---we're talking decades and even generations. And yet, these fundamental issues are more important than the implementation details we hear about, in the sense that whether people accept individualism, moderate collectivism, or extreme collectivism has a tremendous impact on the range of implementation details considered at election time. Our goal today, and the goal of RadCap's in general, is to help raise the level of abstraction of political discourse to a higher level, to the level of fundamental issues like individualism versus collectivism. Of course, RadCaps advocates a specific point of view---individualism---and we would like to convince people that it's the correct one. But just as important, we feel, is the more general goal of the level of discourse. So I hope that next time you hear a political advertisement or a debate between candidates, you'll try to see the collectivist and individualist angles in addition to the concrete policies advocated.