An Objectivist Critique of David Hume

Tom Blackstone is the author of Philosophy: What It Is and Why We Need It and a contributing guest writer for CelebrityTypes. As always with guest writers on the site, Blackstone’s piece represents his own insights and not necessarily those of the site. 

By Tom Blackstone

david hume copyDavid Hume is one of the most influential philosophers of the 18th century, and any professor who teaches a course in Modern Philosophy will expect students to spend some time trying to understand Hume’s ideas.

However, many students who first encounter Hume’s ideas are put off by some of his more extreme statements, such as that we have no “self” that we can be aware of, or that there are no “causes” to events that we can determine. Students often say in response to these ideas that they “just know” that Hume isn’t right, although they admit that they cannot find an error in his arguments. Nevertheless, they often feel some anxiety about his arguments, even if they reject his conclusions.

In addition, Hume’s arguments are so influential in Academia that some students may accept his conclusions simply because they cannot find any significant opposition arguments.

For this reason, I think it’s helpful to not only consider Hume’s ideas in detail, but also to provide the most sophisticated answer to them that I think has yet been offered. In order to do so, I will contrast Hume’s ideas with those of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy.

Historical Background to Hume’s Philosophy

When Hume first came onto the philosophical scene in the late 1700s, European society was changing because of the rise of experimental science. By taking questions that had disputed answers and subjecting them to controlled experiments, scientists were reaching consensus on many issues. Philosophers, on the other hand, were still often debating about the same issues they had been for hundreds of years.

Hume was concerned about this lack of progress in philosophy and wanted to develop a truly scientific theory of human nature. He thought that this would provide philosophy with the respect that it deserved.

Explanation of Hume’s Theory of Definition

Hume begins with a theory of consciousness, or “perception” as he calls it. According to his theory, there are only two types of human perception, or consciousness: “impressions” and “ideas.”

Impressions can be grouped into two categories: “impressions of sensation,” also known as “original impressions”; and “impressions of reflection,” also known as “secondary impressions.” Impressions of sensation consist of sights, sounds, feelings on the skin, tastes, pleasures, and pains. Impressions of reflection consist of emotions and desires.

By contrast with impressions, Hume describes ideas as “faint images of these in thinking and reasoning.”[1] If I look at a lava lamp right now, for example, Hume would say that I experience an impression. But if I remember the lava lamp tomorrow, he would say that I will experience an idea. The idea of the lava lamp in my mind tomorrow will be a faint image of the original impression of the lava lamp that is imposed upon me today.

In addition to this distinction between impressions and ideas, Hume further subdivides both of these categories into “simple” and “complex.” A simple impression or idea contains only one element, whereas a complex impression or idea combines more than one element. For example, if I look at a white square, Hume would say that my impression of the white square is complex, made up of the two simple impressions of white color and square shape. If I remember the white square tomorrow, I will likewise experience a complex idea made up of the simple ideas of white and square.

This theory of perception leads to Hume’s idea of definition. According to Hume, the definition of a word is the idea which the word is connected to. If the word has no idea connected to it, then the word is meaningless. If the word has a complex idea connected to it, then this complex idea should be traced back to its constituent simple ideas. If this cannot be done, then the word is meaningless.

Using this theory of definition, Hume attacks many of the terms that philosophers have traditionally used.

For example, philosophers prior to Hume have always distinguished between our perceptions of the world and the world itself. If a man walks into a room and finds an orange lying on a table, then leaves and returns four hours later to find the orange still there, philosophers have traditionally explained this by saying that there was an orange “in reality” or “in the external world” that was separate from the two experiences that the man had.

However, Hume claims that this use of the term “external world” is meaningless, for two reasons:

  1. An external world is something that exists apart from our experiences of it. However, we cannot have an experience of something that we do not have any experiences of, as to do so would be a blatant contradiction. Since there is therefore no simple idea attached to the phrase “external world,” the phrase has no meaning.
  2. An external world is something that continues to exist when it is not perceived. But we cannot perceive something existing when it is not perceived. Once again, there is no simple idea connected to the phrase “external world,” and it is therefore meaningless.

In the past, philosophers have argued with each other about whether we can really know if an external world exists. To Hume, this debate is meaningless because the term “external world” is just meaningless noise. Therefore, he suggests that philosophers should be scientific and stop arguing about a problem that has no answer.

In addition to talking about an “external world,” many philosophers have also talked about an individual “self” that exists apart from any particular experience of it. For example, Descartes argued that although he could doubt the existence of the external world, he could not doubt his own existence, since there would be no one around to do the doubting if he did not exist. Hume disagrees, arguing that when he reflects on his “self,” all he finds is a bundle of perceptions; a succession of sensations, feelings, and urges; that he does not find a single object called a “self” that exists apart from this bundle of perceptions.

Once again, on Hume’s view, the word “self” has no simple ideas connected with it. Like the term “external world” therefore, the notion of the “self” must therefore be meaningless.

Many philosophers in the past have criticized Descartes’ view that we can be immediately aware of our own existence. To Hume, both Descartes and his critics are mistaken because the term “self” has no meaning. Therefore, philosophers should stop arguing about the self altogether.

Hume’s Critique of Causation

Another example in which Hume uses his theory of definition to attack traditional philosophical terms is his consideration of the word “cause.” Philosophers and scientists prior to Hume have usually believed that there is a “law of cause and effect” that operates in the universe and determines how objects behave. For example, if a man fires a pistol at a watermelon from 50 feet, and the watermelon bursts open, philosophers prior to Hume would have explained this event by saying that the shot caused the watermelon to burst open by firing the pistol at it.

Hume disagrees with this way of explaining the event. Hume argues that there are three aspects to causal behavior:

  1. Spatial contiguity: The bullet and the watermelon are close together in space.
  2. Temporal contiguity: We see the gun fire, then the watermelon bursts open. These events are close together in time.
  3. Necessary connection: We imagine that if the gun were to fire again in exactly the same way, with a new watermelon, the new watermelon would burst open.

According to Hume, it is this third aspect of causal behavior, necessary connection, that we have no ground to believe in. Although we do observe some events happening close together in space and time, we do not ever observe any necessary connections between them. Instead, all that we observe is that this time one event followed another. All that we observe is that this time the watermelon exploded after the gun was fired. But that in itself does not give us grounds to believe that the same thing will happen again the next time.

On Hume’s view, there is no simple idea connected to the phrase “necessary connection.” Therefore, like the terms “self” and “external world,” the term “necessary connection” must also be found to be meaningless. And since the term “cause” implies the idea of necessary connection, it too must be meaningless.

Philosophers have wondered in the past how we can know when one thing causes another. Multiple theories have been advanced, but no consensus has been reached. To Hume, the entire debate is ridiculous, since the philosophical word “cause” is meaningless. Philosophers should therefore stop wasting their time.

Hume’s Ethical Theory

To provide one final example by which Hume attacks traditional philosophical concepts using his theory of definition, we can consider his idea of Ethics. Traditional philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato, have argued that Ethics is a product of reason. According to them, human beings have a choice to do what is rational and good or to do what is irrational, self-destructive, and evil.

For Hume, Ethics can never be a product of reason because reason cannot be used to derive what ought to be, as opposed to what is. We cannot see, taste, touch, hear, or smell “goodnesss.” Therefore, when a man says “it is good not to rob people” he simply means that it is desirable to him that someone else not rob people. Ethics is therefore a product of feelings, customs, and habits – but not reason.

In Hume’s view, in order for Ethics to be derived from reason, there would have to be a simple idea connected to the idea of “goodness.” However, there obviously is not. We cannot trace terms like “should,” “ought to,” “desirable,” or “good to do,” back to anything that we can see, taste, touch, hear, or smell. These terms therefore, are meaningless when used for any reason other than to say that we simply desire something.

Throughout history, philosophers have argued over what constitutes the good life. No consensus has emerged. In Hume’s view, the term “goodness,” as philosophers have traditionally used it, is again meaningless. Philosophers should therefore also stop arguing about ethics.

The Objectivist Response to David Hume

At the time that Ayn Rand began writing, philosophy was split into two camps. On the one side were the analytic philosophers who agreed with David Hume that both questions about the nature of reality and about ethics were meaningless. These philosophers wanted to be “scientific” by asking questions that could be answered through logic and the study of language. On the other side were the continental philosophers who believed that philosophy should be practical and should therefore answer questions about the nature of reality and the good life. However, these latter philosophers also agreed with Hume that such questions could not be answered through reason. Therefore, they advocated “irrational” means such as poetry and storytelling to answer these questions. However, both sides agreed that traditional philosophical questions could not be answered through reason.

Rand was deeply concerned about this anti-rationalistic trend in philosophy and believed that it was responsible for a moral decay that had taken over Western Civilization. In her view, the rise of totalitarian systems of government in Russia, Germany, and Italy provided significant evidence for this decay. Rand believed that humanity was abandoning the Ancient Greek belief in rationality and virtue, and that society was in danger of collapsing as a result.

Rand wanted to restore traditional philosophy as the foundation of morality, and therefore to give it a place of reverence in the world.

Rand’s Response to Hume

Rand begins her account of consciousness by dividing it into three stages: Sensation, perception, and conception. Sensation is an automatic reaction of a sense organ from the outside world. Perception is a group of sensations retained by a living organism and integrated by its brain into an awareness of “entities,” or “things.” Conception is a “mental integration of two or more concretes … isolated by a process of abstraction and united by means of a specific definition.”[2]

For Rand, the process of forming concepts is “volitional.” It is something that we must choose to do. Nature will not impose concepts upon our minds. In addition, forming concepts correctly is not easy to do. In order to make sure that our concepts are valid, we must find the distinguishing characteristic that sets the members of the concept apart from other objects that are not included. For example, in order to correctly form the concept “animal,” we must realize that our siblings and pets are included in this concept but not our Mom’s plant that is sitting out on the front porch.

Unlike Hume, Rand does not equate concepts with “ideas” that are faded memories of impressions. Instead, she uses this term to denote a group of objects viewed as belonging together, such as “human being,” “car,” “tree,” “building,” etc.

Again unlike Hume, Rand also distinguishes sensations from perceptions. In Rand’s view, a white square is not a “complex impression” that can be broken down into simple impressions. Instead, it is an “entity”; a complete thing perceived by us as a whole. Although we can speculate philosophically that there must have been a time when this white square would have appeared simply as a blob of color and shape (i.e. as a sensation), this is a conceptual discovery that should be not be used to attack the very validity of perception itself.

Perception, for Rand, is not volitional. We cannot choose to see the elements of the white square as separate from each other. The white square simply appears to us as an indivisible unit. Therefore, perception cannot be “invalid,” because the concept of “invalidity” only applies to volitional processes. According to Rand, we cannot make mistakes about things that we cannot control. Therefore, we cannot use an invalid method (make mistakes in which method we use) when only one method is open to us.

Hume had said that the concept of an “external world” is meaningless. But for Rand, we perceive an “external world” every time that we look at it. Right now, writing this piece, I perceive a computer screen, and a keyboard. An hour ago, I perceived a television in my living room. In each of these cases, I perceived an “external world.” Through concepts, I can abstract away my own perception from the thing itself. I can realize that my perception of the television today is separate from my perception of it yesterday, and that the television set is itself separate from each of my experiences. But recognizing this requires that I operate at the conceptual level of consciousness. In perception, I simply see the television. It does not appear to me to be a “simple impression.” On the contrary, it appears to be a television; something which is obviously separate from me.

What is true of the television is true of the external world in general. For Rand, when Hume argues that the notion of an “external world” is impossible (because you cannot perceive something that you don’t perceive), he is confusing the perceptual and conceptual levels of consciousness. We must first perceive the external world. Only by thinking about what is happening can we then realize that we are perceiving it, and that this perception is separate from the thing perceived. In order for Hume to validly say that we are unreasonable for believing in an external world, he would have to prove that conceptualization itself is invalid. However, he assumes this rather than proving it.

Rand’s Criticism of Hume’s No-Self View

Rand also disputed Hume’s assertion that human beings don’t really have a “self,” but only a bundle of internal perceptions. According to Rand, we do not perceive ourselves as a “bundle of impressions.” We perceive ourselves as a unity. In fact, Rand turns Hume on his head and says that it is only through abstraction that we achieve an understanding that within the self there is a continuous stream of thoughts and feelings.

Rand’s Criticism of Hume’s Critique of Causality

Rand’s criticism of Hume’s view of causality is similar to the previous two lines of criticisms: In Rand’s view, we can see necessary connections (the very thing that Hume had denied) directly: For example, suppose I have a feeling that I want to lift a glass, and I both feel and see myself lifting it. I do not perceive this as “spatial contiguity” or “temporal contiguity,” with “necessary connections left out.” On the contrary, the entire action is experienced by me as one continuous process which I brought about. In the same way, when I see a man fire a gun into a watermelon, the entire process appears to be a continuous, causally connected action.

The “law of causality,” i.e. the rule that every effect must have a cause, is an abstract, conceptual realization. It comes from observing many different events in many different circumstances and then thinking about what has occurred. It comes from the realization that things are what they are and must behave the way that they behave. But the fact that this law is a piece of conceptual knowledge does not invalidate it on that account alone.

Rand’s Criticism of Hume’s Ethics

In regards to Ethics, Rand argues that values or “things that one should do” arise in the context of life. Unlike inanimate matter, living things can cease to exist. If a fish does not swim fast enough to avoid being eaten, the matter that composed it will remain in the stomach of the organism that ate it, but its life will go out of existence. In order to continue to exist, organisms must constantly work to preserve their lives.

Human beings, however, have a peculiar problem that other organisms do not have. While other organisms automatically pursue what is best for them, human beings do not. The reason they do not is because human beings can only survive by conceptualizing, and conceptualization is volitional.

In regards to the argument that our senses do not tell us what we ought to do, but only what we actually do, Rand responds by saying that what a thing is determines what it ought to do and that we can identify what we are through the conceptual identification of our perceptions. For example, we can identify perceptually which things make us feel pleasure and which make us feel pain. On the conceptual level, we can then determine that things usually cause us pain because they threaten us and that things usually cause us pleasure because they preserve us. On a greater level of abstraction, we can come to understand that our emotions of joy and sorrow are conceptual equivalents of the basic pain/pleasure mechanism and that we can program this mechanism to lead us to the things which are the best for our lives. For example, we can initiate an exercise program even though it causes us pain, and can even come to feel joy while using this program because of the knowledge that it is making us healthier. On an even greater level of abstraction, we can come to understand The Randian Virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride, Honesty, Integrity, Independence, Justice, and that the consistent practice of these virtues will lead to a successful and happy life.

Conclusion

These are only some of the principles of Rand’s philosophy, the ones that I thought were most relevant to rebutting the claims of David Hume. Hopefully, these arguments are enough to dispel any anxiety that a student may feel when hearing that “there is no self” or “there is no external world.” Or, if a student finds Hume’s arguments convincing, hopefully this is enough to cause that person to question Hume’s conclusions.

NOTES
[1] Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature §1.1.1
[2] Rand: The Objectivist Ethics §36

***

Image of Hume in the article commissioned for this publication from artist Georgios Magkakis.

50 Comments

  1. admin says:

    Dear Tom,

    Thank you for a stimulating essay.

    Re: The paragraph that starts with “Perception, for Rand, is not volitional…”:
    We might not be able to choose another method, but that still doesn’t guarantee that the findings of that method are correct. E.g. we know that humans have only three color receptors, whereas some animals have as many as 12. We cannot choose to perceive the world as if we had more than three color receptors, but if we could see it from the perspective of someone who did, then we would instantly recognize ordinary human perception as, if not invalid, then at least unreliable and fraught with insufficiencies when it comes to establishing objective knowledge. This is the point that Hume is trying to make.

    Re: The paragraph that starts with “Hume had said that the concept of an “external world” was meaningless…”
    Rand is no doubt correct that we perceive an external world, and Hume’s assumption that all concepts must ultimately be formed from impressions is doubtful. However, while you legitimately and reliably form the concept of an external world, and while you may legitimately experience your perception of objects as different from them, Hume’s point here is that you cannot really know whether your concepts or sensations are correct in any objective sense of the term. You may be deceived on account of your sensory apparatus being insufficient, your concept-forming faculty being error-wrought, and so on. For this reason, appealing to the fact that, in practical terms, the television set is “obviously” different from you simply won’t do.

    Re: “In order for Hume to validly say that we are unreasonable for believing in an external world, he would have to prove that conceptualization itself is invalid. However, he assumes this rather than proving it.”
    First, Hume wouldn’t say that we are doing anything wrong by placing practical reason in our concepts; he only thinks that trusting common sense is not a sufficient way of establishing formal scientific knowledge. So in order to doubt the reasonability of believing in the concept of an external world in the formal sense, even by Rand’s argument (that perceptions are necessary in order to form concepts), Hume wouldn’t have to disprove conceptualization itself, but only to disprove the perceptions that precede conceptualization (same as above).

    Re: The paragraph that starts with: “The “law of causality,” i.e. the rule that every effect must have a cause…”
    Hume does not dispute that we see necessary connections; he just claims that, in terms of formal knowledge, the assertion of a necessary connection is not justified. One reason, as you said, is that you don’t observe the connection, only the spatial and temporal contiguity; in other words, you are making an inference based on what you _see_, and what you see may not be accurate (e.g. you perceive the world with three color receptors, fundamentally limiting the accuracy of the way that the world is rendered to your vision). Another reason we are not justified in assuming a necessary connection in the formal sense is that, even by Rand’s own argument, we are using induction to establish the principle of causation (i.e. saying “A must cause B because of the constant and repeatedly observed contiguity between A and B”) and we are thereby using an inductive argument for the principle of induction, which is clearly circular.

    Best,
    Ryan Smith

  2. AndrahilAdrian says:

    I agree with most of what Ryan said, except for “Rand is no doubt correct that we perceive an external world”. If we invented an “x-ray microscope” that we could train on our own brains, which was powerful enough that we could actually see our neurons firing away, would we be perceiving the external world or our internal one?

    As a sort of addendum to Ryan’s post, I’ll also address Rand’s “criticism” of Hume’s ethics. Specifically, the idea that “’things that one should do’ arise in the context of life’. The main point seems to be that a person objectively “ought” to do what “is” going to preserve his life. This isn’t actually resolving the is/ought problem, it’s just shifting the definition of “ought”. From what I gather from the article, Rand offers no arguments for why we have a moral obligation to survive, or why it is morally wrong to be self-destructive. Furthermore, even if she succeeded, it would be a very banal moral program. Once you’ve satisfied the basic necessities of survival (food, water, etc.), it would offer no further instruction. And you definitely can’t derive the “Rand virtues” from it, if only because it’s very easy to show real world examples of situations where the only way to survive is to be lazy, humble, dishonest, deceitful, dependent, and unjust. Rand seems to fallaciously conflate “survival” with “the successful and happy life”, which is just sloppy. Worse, her ethics have a totalitarian, Kantian quality; she seems to think she has insight into THE right way to act, and anyone who acts otherwise isn’t just wrong, they’re EVIL. Since this is a psychology website, I think it’s fitting to point out that such strident moralism has long been linked with a deep-seated sense of inferiority, since the days of Freud and especially Nietzsche.

  3. admin says:

    This is a good comment that I’m glad to see on the site. Regarding the microscope, that would still be an ‘external’ world in the sense that it is external to the ‘self’ (unless you want to argue that the ‘self’ is somewhere in the brain. But of course, the question seems different for you, because you seem to be approaching the problem from a contemporary physicalist metaphysics, while I am trying to think like a British empiricist, albeit critically so. I personally agree with your criticism of Rand’s response to Hume’s ethics, but other readers’ mileage may vary, including the author’s. However, you lose me at the end: Are you saying that Kant would denounce people who did not act according to his ethics as evil? I’m not sure that was what he would say (or is it?). Indeed, in the case of Rand, I think that the sense of inferiority that has been compensated by the Objectivist system is fairly palpable. In the case of Kant, it’s a bit more subtle, but it’s also there.

  4. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “Regarding the microscope, that would still be an ‘external’ world in the sense that it is external to the ‘self’ (unless you want to argue that the ‘self’ in somewhere in the brain. But of course, the question seems different for you, because you seem to be approaching the problem from a contemporary physicalist metaphysics, where I am trying to think like a British empiricist, albeit critically so”

    Well, Hume would certainly not agree that “Rand is no doubt correct that we perceive an external world”. That’s your view (and Tom’s), and it’s that view that I was challenging. My point is indeed that when you experience the “internal world”, what you are actually experiencing is the functioning of the brain. (Under a naturalist metaphysics, that is uncontroversial. What else could you be experiencing?) But when you are experiencing the external world, you are also experiencing the functioning of the brain, and indeed your brain is in the external world. So the division of “worlds” doesn’t hold up under the naturalist metaphysics of Rand and Hume. If you’re arguing that naturalist metaphysics is wrong, you:
    a. cannot claim to be arguing in the tradition of David Hume

    and

    b. Have Occam’s Razor to contend with.

    “I personally agree with your criticism of Rand’s response to Hume’s ethics, but other readers’ mileage may vary, including the author’s.”

    While I of course welcome the spirit of disagreement, I don’t think it’s really a YMMV issue. Rand’s ethics do not follow from her premises. Her argument is incoherent. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken.

    “However, you lose me at the end: Are you saying that Kant would denouce people who did not act according to his ethics as evil? I’m not sure that was what he would say (or is it?).”

    He might not say that THEY are evil, no. You make a good point there. But He and Rand both posit universal standards of behavior, that they believe all people have a moral obligation to live by. And they think that anyone who do not live their way is acting immorally. I of course also have ideas about how people should live, but I don’t think they’re the same for everyone and, more importantly, I don’t feel the need to morally sanction people who disagree and live differently. And the urge to bring morals into it is, in my view, a sign of low self-regard, an insecurity about the ability of one’s ideas to stand up without the “force of moral law” to protect them. Objectivism is especially guilty of accusing people who don’t follow it or agree with it of being, not just wrong, but bad. You see this in political correctness, too. Kant doesn’t argue that you have a moral duty to agree with him (unlike Rand) but he does argue that you have a moral duty to live according to his philosophy. This is bad for intellectual discourse, because it’s essentially a way to bully and intimidate people into not disagreeing with you.

    “Indeed, in the case of Rand, I think that the sense of inferiority that has been compensated by the Objectivist system is fairly palpable. In the case of Kant, it’s a bit more subtle, but it’s also there.”

    I’m glad you agree :)

  5. admin says:

    We have to distinguish between objective observations and “practical seemings” (as Sextus Empiricus called them). In terms of the former, Hume would not agree that we see an external world; in terms of the latter, he would.

    In terms of metaphysics, Hume is a kceptic; objectively, we can’t really know what we’re observing, only how it seems to us.

    We seem to rely on different information. You seem to be saying that Hume argues from a naturalist metaphysics, and I think he is arguing from a skeptical metaphysics (where metaphysics are largely impossible). I don’t disagree with the reasoning you present; I just don’t think the premise (that Hume was a metaphysical naturalist) is right. I think he was a _practical_ naturalist, i.e. he agrees that things seem a certain way to us, and he does place some credence in “practical seemings,” but he takes care to point out that their ultimate justification is custom and seeming, not reason.

  6. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “We have to distinguish between objective observations and “practical seemings” (as Sextus Empiricus called them). In terms of the former, Hume would not agree that we see an external world; in terms of the latter, he would.”

    Agreed.

    “In terms of metaphysics, Hume is a sceptic; objectively, we can’t really know what we’re observing, only how it seems to us.”

    Agreed.

    “We seem to rely on different information. You seem to be saying that Hume argues from a naturalist metaphysics, and I think he is arguing from a skeptical metaphysics (where metaphysics are largely impossible). I don’t disagree with the reasoning you present; I just don’t think the premise (that Hume was a metaphysical naturalist) is right. I think he was a _practical_ naturalist, i.e. he agrees that things seem a certain way to us, and he does place some credence in “practical seemings,” but he takes care to point out that their ultimate justification is custom and seeming, not reason.”

    You point to a legitimate distinction here, between “hard” naturalism (where you have a metaphysics and it is naturalist) and “soft” naturalism, where you are a skeptic about metaphysics and assume naturalism as a result. Rand was the former, Hume was the latter. When I spoke about naturalist metaphysics I was speaking of both these variants of naturalism. I should have been more clear, but it’s not that relevant to my overall point about how it’s not “no doubt correct that we perceive an external world”, because the dualist division between internal and external worlds is incompatible with both.

  7. admin says:

    That’s interesting. When I look at the world, it seems to me as if there is ‘inner’ and ‘outer.’ So in terms of practical seemings, I would say that there is an internal and external world. When I think that, in reality, there’s no such division, either because I’m a naturalist or a Kantian, I have to be mindful and attend to reason alone. If I don’t, it seems to me that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are objective distinctions, don’t you? Descartes often gets faulted for this idea of an ‘external’ world, but I think it’s been with us since Pythagoras and Plato.

  8. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “When I look at the world, it seems to me as if there is ‘inner’ and ‘outer.’ So in terms of practical seemings, I would say that there is an internal and external world”.

    It’s important not to confuse Hume’s idea of “impressions” (which you call ‘practical seemings’) with anything that “seems” true to you. Otherwise, you can get away with anything, for instance:

    “When I look at the world, it seems to me as if it was created by a flying spaghetti monster. So in terms of practical seemings, I would say that there is a flying spaghetti monster”.

    “it seems to be that ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ are objective distinctions, don’t you?”

    I’ve heard the idea that people are “natural dualists” bandied around before, but it hasn’t been my experience. When I first started thinking about philosophy, in middle school, my initial intuition was hardcore solipsism; it seemed to me that everything was in my head, all “inner” and no “outer”. This stance softened over time, and when I read Hume in my second year of college I came around to my current position, that the distinction is meaningless. It’s easy for me to switch between perceiving the world as entirely outer and entirely inner, because I know that sense data is experienced as thought, just like abstract ideas or memory; it’s not like sense data is the realm of the brain and vision is the realm of the eyes. Vision needs the brain too.

    Do you think differences in psychological type can have some explanatory power for how people think about this? I.E. are there types that tend towards “natural dualism”, types that tend towards my position, types that tend towards yours, etc?

  9. Rachel Wood says:

    I think both philosophies are deeply flawed.

    By my reasoning, Hume makes a big mistake with his “simple ideas” concept. And then he goes ahead and makes this the foundation of his philosophy.

    Personally, I don’t believe there is any such thing as simple ideas, as defined by Hume, but only, complex ones.

    For eg. The colour green, the number 1, and the shape of a square are all complex ideas. They can not be understood without reference to a larger system. Without the number 500, the number one is meaningless. Without the colour yellow, the colour green is meaningless. Without the existence of pentagons, the existence of squares is meaningless.

    And so, if Hume followed his own rules to the letter, and understood these problems, he would say philosophers couldn’t talk coherently about anything.

    ***

    Ayn Rand’s fatal flaw is in turning a supposedly “reason”-based philosophy into a philosophy that actually rejects reason and is founded on deep faith – the unfounded ASSUMPTION that an external world exists, and that human senses can perceive it.

    Now, of course, an external world COULD exist, and it MAY be exactly as our senses perceive it – but Rand’s philosophy is meant to be reason-based, and pure reason could never EVER lead you to this conclusion.

    Instead, I believe pure reason leads you quite distinctly AWAY from the external world, and, when it’s taken to extremes (as I myself seem to have a tendency towards), it leads to a perfect vacuum where nothing, not even the self (contrary to Descartes’ opinion) can be logically defended as existing, and ANYTHING is possible.

    The external world, and the “self” or soul, can only be reached by faith. To not realise the existence of this faith must be put down to intellectual laziness and wishful thinking.

    However, such faith is absolutely necessary in order for us to lead happy, well-balanced lives, and is far from a bad thing.

    ***

    However, I’m only some random 22 year old girl with no qualifications (or even really much interest) in philosophy, so I’m probably talking total crap.

    I’m off to eat chocolate and write about wizards now…

  10. Rachel Wood says:

    Ryan, I agree with the other poster’s rejection of your claim that we beyond doubt observe an external world. I think it’s likely, but far from certain.

    As for the question of a microscope looking into the brain, and observing the inner or outer world. There is another option you haven’t considered – the common religious notion of souls. It may also suggest the soul can be affected by the body.

    By this view, the brain is a part of the external world, but it is closely related to what the soul (not a part of the external world at all, but instead of a supernatural realm) – when the soul thinks, parts of the brain will light up. This leads to a connection between the inner and outer worlds.

    Though I’m not religious, and though this soul concept is unfashionable nowadays, the evidence still suggests it as a real possibility (by my comprehension, though scientists try to find naturalistic explanations as it’s their job) and so it deserves a respectable place in the discussion – Occam’s Razor be damned. :D

  11. admin says:

    Lawrence, you’re right, I confused the two. Yet in a sense, I think Sextus is actually more incisive than Hume on this point, because since there is no way to distinguish the raw impressions of the senses and the ways in which cultural mores may affect them, we can’t really be sure that we are tracing things back to any original impression, as Hume supposed. As I touched on earlier, this inherited empiricism is IMO one of the weakest areas of Hume’s philosophy. As I mention in the article on Shankara, I think that Ni probably has some affinity for solipsism (even if Ni users do not recognize it as solipsism – Sam Harris solving a deep philosophical problem [in his own head at least] every second year seems a good example). I also think, quite straightforwardly, that extroverts are less prone to doubt the external world, though I had a Kantian phase myself ;) But in your comment, you only mention yourself – on the whole of it, I think that most Western people are natural dualists. Whether that’s seeming (culture) or impressions (biology) or both, I don’t know, but when studying religious texts from India and China, I have been amazed at how – even when people like the Buddha tell them that there is no inner and outer – vulgar forms of their teachings emerge, which make use of the inner/outer distinction in a way that seems very familiar to us “cultural Christians.” Like the wheel and the alphabet, the idea seems to have natural appeal to people from vastly different cultures.

    Rachel, I agree with your criticism of Hume that there must be counterparts to ideas in order for them to make sense. That’s what the Nagarjuna article is about. Hume discovers some of the same things that Nagarjuna did, a.k.a. “the conflict in reason itself” (that it is insufficient), but then takes this conflict to be his conclusion, whereas Nagarjuna only takes it as a starting point. So I agree, the whole ideas thing in Hume is questionable. I like your remarks about Ayn Rand. It’s too bad that you’re not more into philosophy ;)

  12. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “there is no way to distinguish the raw impressions of the senses and the ways in which cultural mores may affect them, we can’t really be sure that we are tracing things back to any original impression, as Hume supposed”

    Well, unless you think the man has, like, total control of our senses, man, you can probably trust that what you see with your own eyes are original impressions and not cultural shadow puppets.

    “I think that Ni probably has some affinity for solipsism”

    This would make sense, since Ni works through perceiving one’s own inner experience and ideas; Si is also about that. Do you think Si types share the same tendency? It makes sense to me for Se and Ne to doubt the existence of inner experience and Si and Ni to doubt the existence of outer experience; what about the judging functions?

  13. Rachel Wood says:

    I’m not really familiar with Nagarjuna, but I’ll get around to him at some point. :)

    I just find the entire subject very uninspiring. Also, I’ve never read a philosopher who I could really connect with – all the ones I’ve read seem to have pretty gaping holes when you look closely enough, and my worldview is vastly different to any philosopher I’ve read. It seems to me looking in like philosophy is a classroom full of misguided but confident schoolkids all arguing about things that really don’t matter anyway in a way that doesn’t make much sense.

    And so the subject leaves me kind of cold. Not that I’m incapable of understanding it, because I think I’m okay at understanding the issues.

    But maybe I just haven’t come across the philosophers closer to my perspectives yet.

  14. Tom Blackstone says:

    I appreciate the many comments to this essay, and I want to respond to just a few of the points made.

    Ryan said…

    “The paragraph that starts with ‘Perception, for Rand, is not volitional…’:
    We might not be able to choose another method, but that still doesn’t guarantee that the findings of that method are correct. E.g. we know that humans have only three color receptors, whereas some animals have as many as 12. We cannot choose to perceive the world as if we had more than three color receptors, but if we could see it from the perspective of someone who did, then we would instantly recognize ordinary human perception as, if not invalid, then at least unreliable and fraught with insufficiencies when it comes to establishing objective knowledge. This is the point that Hume is trying to make.”

    Rand would say in response that you are (or Hume is) committing a “fallacy of the stolen concept” (http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/stolen_concept,_fallacy_of.html). How do you know that “humans only have three color receptors, whereas some animals have as many as 12” without using the senses to attain this knowledge? And if human perception is “unreliable and fraught with insufficiencies”, then isn’t the idea that we have less color receptors than other animals itself unreliable? You didn’t get the idea that some animals have more color receptors from mystic intuition, did you? You got it from the senses. But if that is the case, then you have no epistemological right to rely on this premise in your argument. By making the argument, you are admitting that human perception IS reliable.

    Ryan said…

    “Hume’s point here is that you cannot really know whether your concepts or sensations are correct in any objective sense of the term. You may be deceived on account of your sensory apparatus being insufficient, your concept-forming faculty being error-wrought, and so on. For this reason, appealing to the fact that, in practical terms, the television set is “obviously” different from you simply won’t do. ”

    From an Objectivist perspective, our sensory apparatus is simply part of who we are. It isn’t “sufficient” or “insufficient”. It simply is the way that we perceive the world.

    Concept-formation is different. We can commit errors in the process of abstraction. This is why we need Epistemology to guide us to the proper cognitive habits. Once we have employed these habits, however, there is no basis for saying that “we cannot really know whether our concepts are correct”. The reason there is no basis for it is because the phrase “we cannot know whether our concepts are correct” just means “we have not followed the proper cognitive habits”. There isn’t any other objective meaning to the phrase.

    When you use words like “error-wrought” and “insufficient”, you are dropping the context that gives rise to the meaning of these concepts. Normally, an “error-wrought” process is one that we’ve discovered to lead to errors. This is contrasted with a process that is not “error-wrought”. The entire purpose of making this identification is so that we can employ the best cognitive processes that are available to us. But you are saying that everything we do is “error-wrought”. If this were true, there would be no reason to form the concept in the first place, and you would be speaking gibberish.

    The question that remains is “What practices should we actually employ so as to form the right concepts?” Unfortunately, I did not have enough time in such a short essay to thoroughly explore Rand’s answer to this question, but I do give a more detailed treatment of it in Chapter Ten of my book (http://goo.gl/gjUKFg).

    Ryan said…

    “even by Rand’s own argument, we are using induction to establish the principle of causation (i.e. saying “A must cause B because of the constant and repeatedly observed contiguity between A and B”) and we are thereby using an inductive argument for the principle of induction, which is clearly circular.”

    From Rand’s perspective, the Law of Causality is known “implicitly” from our first few experiences. It is known through direct perception, not induction. There is a fairly detailed discussion of implicit concepts in the appendix to Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Expanded Second Edition) pgs. 159-162. There is also a discussion specifically about causality and induction on pgs. 295-301 of that book.

    AndrahilAdrian said…

    “As a sort of addendum to Ryan’s post, I’ll also address Rand’s “criticism” of Hume’s ethics. Specifically, the idea that “’things that one should do’ arise in the context of life’. The main point seems to be that a person objectively “ought” to do what “is” going to preserve his life. This isn’t actually resolving the is/ought problem, it’s just shifting the definition of “ought”. From what I gather from the article, Rand offers no arguments for why we have a moral obligation to survive, or why it is morally wrong to be self-destructive.”

    In my own opinion, this was the weakest part of my essay. Rand’s ethical arguments are complicated, and there just wasn’t enough time to explain them adequately enough. I will just say briefly in response that “the main point” is most assuredly not that “a person objectively ‘ought’ to do what ‘is’ going to preserve his life”. Rand isn’t making an argument that a person should do what promotes his life. Instead, she is analyzing what the concept “should” means. She is asking the question “What facts give rise to concepts like ‘should’ or ‘ought to’?” In her view, the only reasonable answer to this question is that it is the need of organisms to survive that necessitates the concept.

    Rand explains her ethical theory in her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics”. However, I personally think that her view is much clearer when it is contrasted with other modern ethical theories, such as Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Intutionism, and Non-Cognitivism. In chapters four and five of my book, I give a detailed explanation of these theories and Rand’s, with an emphasis on the differences between them. I think this is a much better way of learning her ethical theory than simply reading her essay would be.

  15. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “she is analyzing what the concept “should” means. She is asking the question “What facts give rise to concepts like ‘should’ or ‘ought to’?” In her view, the only reasonable answer to this question is that it is the need of organisms to survive that necessitates the concept.”

    But that’s far too narrow a definition for “should”. She’s essentially redefining the concept of should to mean only what She thinks people should do, thereby assuming it’s impossible to coherently express an alternative set of values (see Ryan’s point about unintentional solipsism). The concept of should is an expression of desire (You shouldn’t steal = I wish you wouldn’t steal) and an attempt to assert one’s will (You shouldn’t steal = I command you; don’t steal!). The desire here can be anything and the concept is still coherent. For example, death cults say you should kill yourself to be one with the transcendent. It’s not “the need of organisms to survive” that necessitates that concept. The concept of should is necessitated by the whole spectrum of human desire, which is not limited to survival.

  16. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Could you give a basic outline of how we can perceive causality without any inductive reasoning? How can you establish this law just by passively looking at things and not thinking at all? Does this mean security cameras could theoretically infer causation too?

    I agree that Hume is committing a “fallacy of the stolen concept”.

    I think Ayn Rand would have been on better ground if She’d been more honest from the start. If she’d started with a list of undefended statements (such as “there is an external world, and our senses can perceive it”), and just said she accepted these as “self-evident truths” -like Jefferson – then she would be on much more reasonable foundations and she could develop a very logical philosophy from those assertions.

    Instead, she tries to present these as objective and obvious Truths that cannot be argued against, and this makes it difficult for me to respect her thinking.

  17. Tom Blackstone says:

    AndrahilAdrian says…

    “But that’s far too narrow a definition for “should”. She’s essentially redefining the concept of should to mean only what She thinks people should do, thereby assuming it’s impossible to coherently express an alternative set of values (see Ryan’s point about unintentional solipsism). The concept of should is an expression of desire (You shouldn’t steal = I wish you wouldn’t steal) and an attempt to assert one’s will (You shouldn’t steal = I command you; don’t steal!). The desire here can be anything and the concept is still coherent. For example, death cults say you should kill yourself to be one with the transcendent. It’s not “the need of organisms to survive” that necessitates that concept. The concept of should is necessitated by the whole spectrum of human desire, which is not limited to survival.”

    You are expressing the “non-cognitivst” view of ethics. But this view is just your personal set of values. Why should anyone else accept them?

    To make this clear, you stated earlier that “He and Rand both posit universal standards of behavior, that they believe all people have a moral obligation to live by. And they think that anyone who do not live their way is acting immorally. I of course also have ideas about how people should live, but I don’t think they’re the same for everyone and, more importantly, I don’t feel the need to morally sanction people who disagree and live differently. And the urge to bring morals into it is, in my view, a sign of low self-regard, an insecurity about the ability of one’s ideas to stand up without the “force of moral law” to protect them.” But aren’t you trying to impose your personal morality on Objectivists? Why are we wrong for feeling the need to morally sanction people who disagree and live differently? Why is this “a sign of low self-regard”? Shouldn’t we view you as having low self-regard because you feel the need to criticize us for doing this?

    The problem with skepticism in Ethics is that it is self-refuting. You can’t assert that “no view of ethics is objectively correct” because by doing so, you are asserting something about what people should do, that they “should” believe in non-cognitivism. I don’t believe in non-cognitivism, and I consider your belief in it to be an attempt to impose your personal values on me.

    As to why someone would want to be an Objectivist, it would presumably be because he or she wants to live.

    Of course, some people don’t want to live. If this is the case, they don’t need to adopt the Objectivist Ethics, nor do they need to adopt any ethical theory at all. Instead, they can simply stop trying to survive, allowing nature to take its course. Or, if they are in a hurry, there’s a number of suicide methods that they could use. In any event, they won’t be around be around much longer to bother the rest of us.

    Rachel Wood says…

    “Could you give a basic outline of how we can perceive causality without any inductive reasoning? How can you establish this law just by passively looking at things and not thinking at all? Does this mean security cameras could theoretically infer causation too?”

    Thanks for asking this question, Rachel.

    You have to make a distinction between the implicit knowledge of causality that is pre-conceptual vs. the explicit recognition of causality that comes after language is formed. As an example of a baby’s recognition of the implicit concept, my one-year-old son recently discovered (much to the dismay of his parents) that he can flip the switch on our surge suppressor and turn off the TV and stereo, then flip it again to turn it back on. He laughs hysterically every time he does this. He has not formed any concepts yet, but he still has the knowledge that will later be integrated into the concept of “causality”.

    As far as security cameras are concerned, I don’t know if they can understand causality or not. I assume that they don’t, but proving this point would require us to delve into questions about artificial intelligence that are beyond the scope of the present topic. In addition, whatever I could say about this question would be my own personal view that other Objectivists might disagree with.

    As far as the explicit recognition of causality is concerned, this comes from realizing that things have identities, that entities are what they are and must do what they do. You can’t come to this realization by “not thinking at all”. The Law of Causality is a “corollary” of the Law of Identity; it is the Law of Identity applied to action. It does not require “proof” because proof is required of theorems, not axioms and their corollaries. But it does require some thought. For more information on this, you can read Leonard Peikoff’s “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, pgs. 12-17.

    “I think Ayn Rand would have been on better ground if She’d been more honest from the start. If she’d started with a list of undefended statements (such as “there is an external world, and our senses can perceive it”), and just said she accepted these as “self-evident truths” -like Jefferson – then she would be on much more reasonable foundations and she could develop a very logical philosophy from those assertions.”
    This is exactly what Rand does. Her philosophy is built on a system of metaphysical axioms that she considers to be self-evident. I would encourage you to read Chapter One of Piekoff’s book, or Chapter Ten of my book, for further information.

    “Instead, she tries to present these as objective and obvious Truths that cannot be argued against, and this makes it difficult for me to respect her thinking.”

    I don’t understand what you are saying. If a person considers something to be “ a self-evident truth”, then of course they think it is “an objective and obvious truth that cannot be argued against”. I’m not understanding the distinction that you are making between these two phrases. Could you explain a little further?

  18. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Thanks for the thoughtful response!

    I liked your reply to my question about causality. :)

    I didn’t know her philosophy was based on what she believed were selfevident truths, and that she explicitly admits this. :) To be honest my knowledge of Rand’s philosophy is very vague and second-hand – I’ve read none of the original texts. Perhaps I’ll give them a read (they can’t be any more boring than her novels haha).

    What I mean is, that when someone says x is a “self-evident truth” what they actually mean is “I have absolutely no fucking way of defending this assertion but I don’t want to question it too much because I want it to be true, so lets just assume it is a fact”.

    This style is much more intellectually honest to me than the other style , where a philosopher will spend pages and pages coming up with bad reasons that try to prove their assumptions are true.

    The reasons I prefer the first kind are:

    1. It shows the person has thought about their foundations in depth, and has realised they can’t prove them.

    2. It makes it easier to spot peoples mistakes.

    3. It allows you to not be so critical of the rest of their philosophy, because you can ask “Well IF these founding assertions are true, would the rest logically follow?” which allows you to appreciate its structure more regardless of whether it is true.

    4. I disagree with the whole idea it’s possible to create a philosophy at all based on reason, as you can never find a self-evident truth (I think it’s very unlikely any such things exist) to base the rest of the philosophy on.

  19. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    As for the conversation you’re having with the other person about ethics, I don’t know why they feel the need to bring Kant or Rands psychological state into the debate.

    Also, a universal ethics, is kind of the point of ethical theory. What would be the point of an ethical theory that wasn’t universal, where anyone could choose their own ethical rules? That said, this type of ethical anarchy may be the only contender for a truly “universal” theory of ethics, as it’s the only thing i can think of that EVERY person might agree with and live by.

    Personally, Im a moral skeptic, but I don’t think you know what this means. What you refer to as the problem with moral skepticism, is actually the problem with moral nihilism instead. Moral skeptics do not necessarily all make the same statement – they are the moral equivalent of agnostics in the religion question, and aren’t persuaded either way.

  20. AndrahilAdrian says:

    Tom:
    “this view is just your personal set of values. Why should anyone else accept them?”

    Because skepticism isn’t a personal value. It’s a method for pruning bad ideas.

    “But aren’t you trying to impose your personal morality on Objectivists?”

    Er, no. I haven’t made any moral claims thus far. Asserting that moral skepticism is a form of morality is like saying atheism is a religion, or baldness is a hair colour.

    “Why are we wrong for feeling the need to morally sanction people who disagree and live differently?”

    You keep implying I’m making moral judgments when I’m not. I don’t think it’s wrong to accuse people who disagree with you of being evil. I just think it’s pathetic. That’s a very important difference. Moral contempt is the poor man’s version of actual contempt.

    “Why is this a sign of low self-regard?”

    Because morally condemning people who live differently is a form of bullying. Bullying stems from weakness and insecurity.

    “Shouldn’t we view you as having low self-regard because you feel the need to criticize us for doing this?”

    No, because I’m not motivated by a desire to see myself as morally superior, a desire which always stems from deficiency in other, more substantive areas. I just enjoy talking about ideas. When Rand (and her followers) accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being evil, it shuts down conversations about ideas. It’s a form of ad hominem – you’re wrong because you’re evil. The only reason Objectivism (or Christianity, or Political Correctness, or any other moralistic ideology) would feel the need to resort to such cheap tactics is if they didn’t feel their ideas are too weak to hold up to intellectual scrutiny. Moralistic argument is designed to shield weak ideas from criticism by making it taboo to criticize them (you don’t want to be evil, do you?). Christianity and PC have mostly succeeded, unfortunately. Objectivism doesn’t have the power to influence the whole culture like this, but it’s managed to create a similarly repressive intellectual environment among its adherents. A “closed system” indeed.

    “The problem with skepticism in Ethics is that it is self-refuting. You can’t assert that “no view of ethics is objectively correct” because by doing so, you are asserting something about what people should do, that they “should” believe in non-cognitivism.”

    I don’t think people who don’t believe in non-cognitivism are evil, I just think they’re mistaken. That’s a core difference between non-cognitivism and objectivism. People should believe in non-cognitivism because it’s logical, not because it’s moral. Are mathematicians making a moral assertion when they say 1 + 1 = 2?

    “I don’t believe in non-cognitivism, and I consider your belief in it to be an attempt to impose your personal values on me.”

    Surely you can see how your arguments for Objectivist morality are identical to the arguments Theists use for the existence of God. It makes it easy for me to refute them. I’m not trying to impose any belief or value-set on you. I’m offering arguments that undermine your beliefs and values. It’s destructive, not constructive. Skepticism is not a belief. It is the absence of belief.

    “As to why someone would want to be an Objectivist, it would presumably be because he or she wants to live.”
    So if I want to live, I have to be an Objectivist? I know Objectivists Revere the American Revolution, but you’re taking “join or die” a bit too literally there. People managed to live full, happy lives long before Objectivism existed, and will continue to do so into the future, many of them by living according to principles diametrically opposed to Rand’s. It’s comically easy to come up with examples where the only way to live would be not to be an Objectivist; if you had to steal food or starve, for instance. So unless you lot are planning a mass extermination of non-believers in the near future, I’ll take my chances. Which is just what I say to Christians when they tell me that not following their beliefs will have dire consequences.

    “Of course, some people don’t want to live. If this is the case, they don’t need to adopt the Objectivist Ethics, nor do they need to adopt any ethical theory at all. Instead, they can simply stop trying to survive, allowing nature to take its course. Or, if they are in a hurry, there’s a number of suicide methods that they could use. In any event, they won’t be around be around much longer to bother the rest of us.”

    Yes, I’m sure Objectivists easily await the day when the non-believers destroy themselves through their own vice, leaving the virtuous to inherit the earth, and with zero inheritance tax! Atlas Shrugged is just a rewrite of the Book of Exodus. Galt will lead his chosen people to the promised land!

    Rachel: I bring psychology into the debate because this is a psychology website, and because I think it would be very foolish to adopt an ethical system that is transparently compensatory for the philosopher’s neuroses and unfulfilled desires.

    “What would be the point of an ethical theory that wasn’t universal, where anyone could choose their own ethical rules?”

    Freedom!

  21. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Your statement that people should be Objectivists because they want to live is, as I’m sure you’re aware, ridiculous.

    It’s like religious organizations who ask, “You don’t want to burn in Hell, do you? Then be a Christian!”

    However, though it’s ridiculous, I think it’s almost certainly correct in the broader sense. We all need to make many of the same common sense assumptions that Rand makes if we are to live well in the world. Not that we all need become Objectivists.

    We need to assume that if we step out in front of a car, it will hit us. That if we don’t eat, we will die. That we really are speaking to people and not just hallucinations.

    And this is why I’m not very interested in reason-based philosophy – almost everything it comes up with is nonsense.

  22. Rachel Wood says:

    @…Adrian

    Haha, I think you’ve just ruled out almost all of philosophy there! :D

    Every system will contain the philosopher’s own neuroses, desires, and biases. INTPs for example, will always be searching for that one basic Truth that leads to all others, even if this truth eventually turns out to be there aren’t any! :D

  23. Tom Blackstone says:

    Rachel,

    Rand would definitely disagree with your definition of “self-evident truth”. To her, “self-evident” simply means “does not require proof”.

    From an Objectivist perspective, one good example of a “self-evident truth” is an “axiom”, which she defines as:

    “the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. it is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest.”

    Here’s an example: Existence exists (or “reality exists”). In Rand’s view, you can’t prove this statement, but it can be logically validated in a sense through the recognition that its denial is self-refuting.

    For example, if someone says “There is no reality”, what does this mean? It means that “In reality, there is no reality” (It’s true that there’s no truth), but that’s clearly self-refuting.

    So while Rand’s philosophy is based on what she sees as “self-evident truths”, she does not mean by this” “I have absolutely no fucking way of defending this assertion but I don’t want to question it too much because I want it to be true, so lets just assume it is a fact”. For Rand, some statements can be validated even if they can’t be proven.

    Having stated this, your concern about “foundations” is one that Objectivists definitely share with you. Rand believed that a lot of useless debate could be done away with if we just asked every philosopher, “Name your primaries. Where do you begin?” She thought this would end what she saw as rampant concept-stealing that was infecting philosophical discourse.

    I would certainly suggest reading Chapter One of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR, as we call it) whenever you get the chance. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  24. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “For example, if someone says “There is no reality”, what does this mean? It means that “In reality, there is no reality” (It’s true that there’s no truth), but that’s clearly self-refuting.”

    This is a strawman. I have never come across anyone who’s ever argued that “it is true there is no reality”. Skeptics like Hume, or even the postmodernists Rand detests so much, would instead say “there is reason to doubt our senses and/or our reason, and therefore to treat them, not as a source of absolute truth, but as the best guide we’ve got”.

  25. AndrahilAdrian says:

    Rachel:
    “Every system will contain the philosopher’s own neuroses, desires, and biases. INTPs for example, will always be searching for that one basic Truth that leads to all others, even if this truth eventually turns out to be there aren’t any! :D”

    Ha, very true, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bust them on their bullshit :)

  26. Rachel Wood says:

    Ah, but I disagree with Rand here. This so-called self-evident fact, and her reasons for calling it sucy, are founded on a deeper assumption – the existence of logic itself.

    This is the question that I think brings down most of Western Philosophy: “Does logic exist?”

    It leads to a major problem, because to answer either way and give any coherent explanation for your choice IMPLIES the existence of logic. That would be circular reasoning, so pure logic can never be the true basis of an internally consistent philosophy, as it cannot even validate its own existence.

    Instead, we are forced to reach non-logical means to answer this question, if we try at all.

    ***

    I’ll read it when I get the time. :)

  27. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Another way of putting it, is to say that Rand’s conclusion that truth must exist, because if it didn’t its non-existence would be a truth, already ASSUMES truth exists in some form before answering the question!

  28. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Thank you for an interesting article and discussion. :)

  29. Tom Blackstone says:

    I’ve enjoyed this discussion as well. The only thing I want to respond to is these two statements from AndrahilAdrian.

    First,

    “I don’t think people who don’t believe in non-cognitivism are evil, I just think they’re mistaken. That’s a core difference between non-cognitivism and objectivism. People should believe in non-cognitivism because it’s logical, not because it’s moral. Are mathematicians making a moral assertion when they say 1 + 1 = 2?”

    Of course mathematicians are making a moral assertion when they say such a thing. Haven’t you ever read Richard Rorty’s Philosophy And The Mirror of Nature? In order to defend the idea that moral statements are non-cognitive, Rorty finds himself compelled to claim that epistemelogical statements are non-cognitive as well. In his book, he shows why the idea of a “naturallistic fallacy” in ethics leads inexorably to the conclusion that all knowledge, even “scientific” knowledge, is actually mere opinion.

    Rand takes the opposite (but still consistent) approach. She admits that epistemology is a normative discipline, but claims that there are ethical truths as well as epistemelogical ones:

    “You who speak of a ‘moral instinct’ as if it were some separate endowment opposed to reason-man’s reason IS his moral faculty. A process of reason is a process of constant choice in answer to the question: true or False?-RIGHT or WRONG? Is a seed to be planted in soil in order to grow-right or wrong? Is a man’s wound to be disinfected in order to save his life-right or wrong? Does the nature of atmospheric electricity permit it to be converted into kinetic power-right or wrong? It is the answers to such questions that gave you everything you have-and the answers came from a man’s mind, a mind of intransigent devotion to that which is RIGHT.” (Atlas Shrugged)

    A person who states “If you say 1 + 1 = 3, you’re wrong!” is making a normative statement. He/she is claiming that people SHOULD say that 1 + 1 =2, that it is “good” and “right” to do so.

    Second,

    “Surely you can see how your arguments for Objectivist morality are identical to the arguments Theists use for the existence of God. It makes it easy for me to refute them. I’m not trying to impose any belief or value-set on you. I’m offering arguments that undermine your beliefs and values. It’s destructive, not constructive. Skepticism is not a belief. It is the absence of belief.”

    Yet you stated in the comment that I was responding to:

    “The concept of should is an expression of desire (You shouldn’t steal = I wish you wouldn’t steal) and an attempt to assert one’s will (You shouldn’t steal = I command you; don’t steal!).”

    This is an assertion, so the onus of proof is upon you.

    My comments in response were, as you say, “destructive, not constructive”. I was not trying to prove Rand’s theory, just undermine yours. I was using sarcasm, something a skeptic ought to know about.

  30. AndrahilAdrian says:

    “A person who states “If you say 1 + 1 = 3, you’re wrong!” is making a normative statement. He/she is claiming that people SHOULD say that 1 + 1 =2, that it is “good” and “right” to do so.”

    This isn’t the first time someone has swallowed one of my reductio ad absurdums. As a remedy, I suggest you think on the differences between Rorty’s idea of maths as “mere opinion”, which is not a problem for skepticism (Rorty was himself a skeptic), and the ludicrous notion that people who are wrong about maths are morally culpable.

    As to your second point, you’re conflating two different arguments I’m making. The first is that there are no objective moral values. There the burden of proof is on Rand, to prove that there are. The second, concerning philosophy of language, is that, in the absence of objective moral values, moral statements (such as “you shouldn’t steal”) can best be understood as expressions of desire and will. You are right that the burden of proof is on me there. I haven’t offered any arguments for it, because:

    a. you’ve been hung up on the first point, and

    b. I think it’s fairly intuitive and obvious.

  31. Tom Blackstone says:

    AndrahilAdrian says:

    “As to your second point, you’re conflating two different arguments I’m making. The first is that there are no objective moral values. There the burden of proof is on Rand, to prove that there are. The second, concerning philosophy of language, is that, in the absence of objective moral values, moral statements (such as “you shouldn’t steal”) can best be understood as expressions of desire and will. You are right that the burden of proof is on me there. I haven’t offered any arguments for it, because:

    a. you’ve been hung up on the first point, and

    b. I think it’s fairly intuitive and obvious.”

    As I’ve stated before, I don’t think that my essay has adequately defended Rand’s ethical theory. There wasn’t enough time in a 3,000-word critique of Hume to do so. My goal was only to provide an outline of Rand’s view on the subject, along with some pointers as to where readers could find more information. I’m satisfied that I’ve accomplished this rather modest goal.

    Regardless of whether I have or have not changed anyone’s mind, I have enjoyed this discussion thoroughly.

  32. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Yeah, I think you did a great job of condensing Rand’s philosophy into a short space to be honest.

    I am confused by the part about Randian ethics though. It seems to me similar to the view of evolutionary ethics or “moral science”. (X is moral for this species because it promotes this type of organisms survival). Which is fair enough, I think. So how does Randian ethics differ from this?

    Also, Im really not sure about those seven virtues. They seem a little suspect to me…

    1. As an INTP, i find it difficult to see productivity for the sake of productivity as a virtue (it’s pointless).

    2. They seem to conflict with each other. Rationality and Pride, Rationality and Productivity, Pride and Honesty, etc.

    3. There are many things I’d take for Virtues missing, such as the arts and sciences (which don’t fit neatly into the Reason box at all), humour, and friendliness.

  33. Rachel Wood says:

    @…Adrian

    When you say “there are no objective moral values” or “there is no God” or “there is no cheesecake on my desk” you are making a positive claim about the state of reality.

    The Burden of Proof is DEFINITELY ON YOU too.

    Otherwise, Christians for example, would be allowed to say, “There is NOT not a God!” and Richard Dawkins would need to keep his mouth shut unless he could prove there was no god.

  34. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    “Regardless of whether I have or have not changed anyone’s mind…”

    It’s very rare anyone changes their mind in a debate – especially on the internet. :) But that isn’t really the point, is it haha? The purpose of debates is to throw half-baked, crazy ideas at people and observe how they dodge them, and to get external validation for being an intelligent, rational person – and maybe even to establish our own intellectual superiority.

  35. Tom Blackstone says:

    Rachel said…

    “Yeah, I think you did a great job of condensing Rand’s philosophy into a short space to be honest.”

    Thank you for the compliment.

    “I am confused by the part about Randian ethics though. It seems to me similar to the view of evolutionary ethics or “moral science”. (X is moral for this species because it promotes this type of organisms survival). Which is fair enough, I think. So how does Randian ethics differ from this?”

    They’re similar, but not exactly the same. I remember reading something about evolutionary ethics in Moore’s “Principia Ethica”, and thinking it had significant differences from Objectivism. But I’d have to do some research to remember what the differences were.

    “Also, Im really not sure about those seven virtues. They seem a little suspect to me…

    1. As an INTP, i find it difficult to see productivity for the sake of productivity as a virtue (it’s pointless).

    2. They seem to conflict with each other. Rationality and Pride, Rationality and Productivity, Pride and Honesty, etc.

    3. There are many things I’d take for Virtues missing, such as the arts and sciences (which don’t fit neatly into the Reason box at all), humour, and friendliness.”

    Interesting. You should write an essay along these lines and let Objectivists critique you on it. :)

    “@…Adrian

    When you say “there are no objective moral values” or “there is no God” or “there is no cheesecake on my desk” you are making a positive claim about the state of reality.

    The Burden of Proof is DEFINITELY ON YOU too.”

    I thought about making this point in my previous post, but here’s why I didn’t: Adrian could easily avoid this problem by backing away from the original statement and saying something like “I don’t believe in ethics. No one has ever given me justification for it. I consider it to be unfounded, etc.”

    This is what any atheist worth his salt will do. Atheism doesn’t necessarily imply an assertion that “there is no God”. It could just mean “I don’t believe in God” instead. This kind of “negative atheism” is a default position on the issue of the existence of God.

    In the same way, ethical skepticism is a default position in ethical theory, and Adrian is right that the burden of proof is on moralists to show that there is some good reason to live by a particular set of principles instead of just doing whatever we feel like doing.

    “It’s very rare anyone changes their mind in a debate – especially on the internet. :) But that isn’t really the point, is it haha? The purpose of debates is to throw half-baked, crazy ideas at people and observe how they dodge them, and to get external validation for being an intelligent, rational person – and maybe even to establish our own intellectual superiority.”

    And hopefully, to get people to buy our books, hire us to write articles/give lectures, and/or be so impressed that they have sex with us.

    This strategy hasn’t worked too well for me, yet. But I’m still trying. ;)

  36. Rachel Wood says:

    @Tom Blackstone

    Also, check out moral science, which is different from evolutionary ethics. Sam Harris is its most famous – and least convincing – supporter. However, it is probably the future of ethics and law, and makes a lot of sense when you think about it. It can’t tell you WHY you should be ethical though, if you just don’t care. It just says what IS ethical, from a scientific-ish perspective.

    Haha I already do too much article writing at university. :D Plus I don’t know any Objectivists!

    You should talk and write about Kate Bush instead, if you want to attract an audience. :) Or better, get her to write a song about Objectivism! I’d buy the mp3 for sure. :)

  37. Rachel Wood says:

    For example, moral science would say that evidence shows humans die when they are left in extreme cold or heat for too long.

    So lighting a fire for a homeless person in the winter to keep him warm would be a “good” thing to do.

    However, to then throw him on the fire, would be a “bad” thing to do. :D

  38. Rachel Wood says:

    Haha I’m none of those Rachel Woods. Also, I’m not the actress Evan Rachel Wood. :)

    I’m just a random 22 year old INTP physics student.

  39. AndrahilAdrian says:

    Fun fact: much of Rand’s philospohy actually seems to have been cribbed from Lenin (particularly this work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism_and_Empirio-criticism) which was mandatory study in Soviet Universities; Rand, who studied philosophy at university, presumably encountered it. Here are a few quotes:

    “The sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside the mind.”

    “Human reason has discovered many amazing things in nature and will discover still more, and will thereby increase its power over nature.”

    “Materialism is the recognition of “objects in themselves”, or outside the mind; ideas and sensations are copies of images of those objects.”

    “To be a materialist is to acknowledge objective truth, which is revealed to us by our sense organs.”

    Needless to say, this form of Marxist Materialism is not representative of materialism as a whole, which is not committed to a dualist ontology. It does bear an undeniable resemblance to Objectivism, though. At the very least, it should put paid to Rand’s notion that the Bolshies were relativists.

  40. admin says:

    Oh, very interesting! Has anyone to your knowledge pointed this out before? Anyway, we know that Rand lifted stuff from Nietzsche and Kant, so why not also Lenin?

  41. AndrahilAdrian says:

    Quite a few snarky Rand critics have pointed out the similarities between her aggressively ideological novels and socialist realism, and their similar glorification of productivity and moralization of economics. Some of her critics have noted that her work has a totalitarian tone, with it’s pretense to absolute truth, it’s intolerance of dissent, and so forth. But those critics (like this one here: http://www.thenation.com/article/garbage-and-gravitas) usually draw comparisons to fascism, not communism, and are usually superficial readers of her work who critique it on the level of style rather than substance. I haven’t come across anyone else who’s ever drawn a comparison between her philosophical beliefs and Marxism-Leninism, but then most critics take aim at her politics, not her philosophy. As far as I know, my morally skeptical critique of Rand’s ethics is unique as well; all the critics of Rand’s ethics I’ve read have been fellow moral realists who are upset by her subversion of their (generally Judeo-Christian, or at least egalitarian) ideals. In fact, Rand is often misidentified (even by one of my own philosophy professors) as a moral nihilist, perhaps because of the Nietzsche connection, or simply because her values are so far removed from most people’s.

    I suspect it was impossible to study philosophy in the Soviet Union and not be influenced in some way by Marxism-Leninism; that would be akin to studying philosophy in 14th century Europe and not being influenced by Catholicism. The fact that Marx, Lenin and Rand all had the same personality type might have had something to do with it too.

  42. admin says:

    Did you go into this critique of Rand’s ethics somewhere on the site? I don’t recall reading about it.

  43. AndrahilAdrian says:

    I meant my exchange with Tom in the comments above.

  44. admin says:

    You should gather those thoughts in an article ;)

  45. Tom Blackstone says:

    AndrahilAdrian says:

    ” I haven’t come across anyone else who’s ever drawn a comparison between her philosophical beliefs and Marxism-Leninism, but then most critics take aim at her politics, not her philosophy.”

    “I suspect it was impossible to study philosophy in the Soviet Union and not be influenced in some way by Marxism-Leninism; that would be akin to studying philosophy in 14th century Europe and not being influenced by Catholicism. The fact that Marx, Lenin and Rand all had the same personality type might have had something to do with it too.”

    Chris Sciabarra wrote a book called “Ayn Rand The Russian Radical” that argues Rand was heavily influenced by the Russian philosophy she learned in college. There was a lot of discussion about it among Objectivists when it was first released, but I haven’t heard anyone talking about it recently.

    I personally think many of Sciabarra’s arguments miss their mark. However, I also agree that she probably was influenced by the culture around her more than she realized.

    It’s a very interesting book regardless.

    The book is out of print, but a used copy can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Ayn-Rand-The-Russian-Radical/dp/0271014415

  46. Tom Blackstone says:

    I just read the Lenin essay, which was very interesting, and the nation.com article.

    I love this paragraph from the nation.com article:

    “What gives life value is the ever present possibility that it might (and one day will) end. Rand never speaks of life as a given or ground. It is a conditional, a choice we must make, not once but again and again. Death casts a pall, lending our days an urgency and weight they otherwise would lack. It demands wakefulness, an alertness to the fatefulness of each and every moment. ‘One must never act like a zombie,’ Rand enjoins. Death, in short, makes life dramatic. It makes our choices—not just the big ones but the little ones we make every day, every second—matter. In the Randian universe, it’s high noon all the time. Far from being exhausting or enervating, such an existence, at least to Rand and her characters, is enlivening and exciting.”

    It’s too bad the author considers this to be a criticism of Rand’s ethics. It’s a particularly beautiful (and accurate) description.

  47. admin says:

    Not too far from Sartre, is it? :)

  48. Tom Blackstone says:

    “Not too far from Sartre, is it? :)”

    There are some differences. For Sartre, the whole issue of death is bound up with the idea of the “for-itself” trying to unite with the “in-itself”, which it can never do. So he sounds all gloomy and despairing when he talks about it.

    But yeah, I agree with you that they are similar. One of the few things that I liked about Sartre when I read “Being And Nothingness” was that he wasn’t afraid to face his own mortality.

  49. AndrahilAdrian says:

    Marx, Lenin, Rand, now Sartre, all INTJs…

    Can either of you think of a way to tie any of this to type?

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