Friday, April 15, 2011

Pragmatism Part 6: Pragmatism and Ayn Rand's Objectivism

I think it would be interesting, at this point, to compare and contrast the pragmatic viewpoint I have expressed in this series with the views of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. I considered myself an Objectivist for many years and still count Rand as a major influence on my thinking.

Please note that the below mainly deals with metaphysics and epistemology. I might deal with Rand's ethical theory in a future post.

(1) The Hierarchy of Philosophy

The first distinction, I think, comes in the hierarchy in which various fields of philosophy are arranged. Rand argued that one must start with metaphysics, and then proceed to epistemology once certain metaphysical foundations have been established, and then proceed from there to ethics and eventually politics.

Pragmatism (as I have been defending it; I don't claim to represent all thinkers that use this label) begins with a mix of ethics and epistemology. It begins by asking the question "Why do we pursue truth?", and in starting with that question, already finds itself in both fields of philosophy, since the question deals with both the nature of truth and the ends towards which we act.

I think the error in Rand's thinking here is that she has everything out of order in terms of how we experience the world. I think this is partly due to her erroneous assumption that people are born as blank slates, and only become anything beyond that through experience. She didn't assume any innate drives in human beings, though she never addresses the question of how more sophisticated values form if we don't have a prime value(s) to start us on the path of action.

We come into the world with certain drives and ways of organizing our experience already in place. The first thoughts of an infant are likely more driven by basic animal desires to experience pleasure and avoid pain than a more sophisticated adult. A baby already acts towards ends, and tries to form understanding of his experience so as to make use of it. Insofar as a baby has a metaphysics, it is only as a practical theory for getting what he desires.

In short, we do not begin with metaphysics and end up with epistemology and ethics. We begin with desires, which later become more sophisticated and achieve the status of values, and our experiences. Notions of truth and falsehood come later, as do notions about what the fundamental stuff of the universe is.

I think in this important way, the pragmatic outlook is more consonant with how we actually think than Objectivism's hierarchy.

(2) The Axioms

Ayn Rand held that there are three basic axioms of the universe. Her justification for the truth value of these axioms is that they cannot be denied without assuming their truth, because they are intrinsic to reasoning itself. The axioms are as follows:

  1. Existence exists. There is something and not nothing.
  2. To be is to be something in particular. Everything has a fundamental nature that distinguishes it from other things.
  3. I am conscious. That is, I am aware of existence and things in particular.
While I agree that these premises are intrinsic to any rational discourse about anything, does it follow from this fact that they are metaphysically true? Rand here seems to be confusing or conflating metaphysics with epistemology; the premises intrinsic to reason are intrinsic to just that; the human faculty of reason, not necessarily of reality as such.

The position I have put forth is that premises such as these may very well be intrinsic to human reasoning. This does not mean they are metaphysically true; they (and reason herself, as well) serve the function of allowing us to usefully organize our experiences.

(3) The Role of Reason

Rand's definition of reason is "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses." I mostly agree with this definition, though I would change "the material provided by man's senses" to "our experiences." Much of the world of our experience is internal; a feeling of sadness or hunger is not material provided by man's senses, but it certainly is among the things that reason deals with. We form abstractions about emotions, thoughts, sensations, etc. just like we do about sensory experience.

For the most part, Rand's conception of reasoning is compatible with pragmatism so long as one does not infer any metaphysical facts from the results of the reasoning process. It is in the belief that metaphysical Truth (with a capital T) can be obtained by reasoning that I am at odds with.

There are some specific things about Rand's theory of concept formation that I am at odds with. For one, it seems impossible to me to be a complete theory of human thought. At no point does Rand address the role of intuition (beyond some comments about emotions being automatic), or consider the possibility that the functions of the human mind are not as holistic as would be convenient for those of us trying to understand it.

Far from the perfect product of a top down designer, modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that the mind is a cobbled together mess of evolutionary kludges built on top of one another. Compare the smooth functionality of a planned neighborhood or city with one that formed more organically (with all of its traffic jams, oddly shaped intersections, and poor zoning) and you'll get a grasp of how imperfect the human mind is.

I also think Rand's grasp of what a concept is is too simple and limiting. Rand defined a concept as "a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." I think this definition fails to account for several things, such as:

  1. How we develop notions intrinsic to our thinking but incapable of being observed directly, such as causality.
  2. Our ability to conceive of things that only have one unit; the types of things we would normally refer to with proper nouns, such as Thomas Jefferson or the Internet.
  3. The possibility that concept formation is more sophisticated and algorithmic than simply omitting measurements; determining the distinguishing characteristic of something might involve more than just measurement omission.
I'm sure I could think of some more comparisons and criticisms, but those are all that come to mind for now. It should suffice as a basic comparison of my pragmatism and Objectivism.

1 comment:

malinda said...

Can you link me to where you got Rand's three axioms from? I am writing a paper on this very subject and a reference to this would be so helpful. Thanks!