Archive for July, 2008

Over on the ObjectivismOnline forum, somebody posted a question from a conservative about some aspects of Objectivism and asked for assistance answering it. My ‘quick’ answer wound up being a bit longer than I originally intended, so I figured I’d cross-post it here. Here’s the original question, followed by my response:

How does objectivism deal with scientific concepts of events or objects that by their very nature cannot be observed or measured? Also does objectivism compensate for issues concerning the potential inaccuracy of the five senses or is it assumed that the senses and the external data that they gather in for intellect and reason to process are always correct? As you can imagine I don’t accept objectivism as a worthwhile philosophy for my life because it excludes too many avenues of discovery. It puts to many limits on lines of though and inquiry and when taking to its fullest potential it seems to be a child of nihilism something akin to atheistic existentialism. I may have misconceptions or a misunderstanding of the philosophy because I haven’t delved deeply in to it but much of what I read I couldn’t agree with.

I’m just tossing this out in a few minutes between other tasks at work, but here’s my thoughts. First, Objectivism definitely takes the position that the senses as such cannot be in error. We draw a strong distinction between the form and object of perception, and between the perception itself and the conceptual identification of the information given in the percept. Let’s concretize this by examining a standard perceptual illusion — the stick in water. We look at it and it seems bent, but we know that it’s really straight. Aren’t our senses giving us incorrect information? No, they aren’t. We are perceiving the identity of a particular part of existence, viz. a stick in water, and the form in which our senses respond to this identity is the perception of the bent-stick-in-water. The object perceived is the stick-in-water, and the form in which we perceive it integrates together multiple causal aspects — the shape of the stick and the refractive index of the water. Our conceptual identification of the percept (which may be in error) is that the stick appears bent because of the effects of the water in which it is immersed.

Because the senses operate causally, they can respond in only one way to any given situation… the way dictated by their nature and the nature of the object being perceived. Since there is no alternative in how they respond, concepts like “error” do not apply. A perception can no more be mistaken than a chemical reaction or a rock rolling down a hill. For a further discussion of the nature of perception, perceptual form and perceptual judgment, see the first few sections of Chapter 2 of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism, or perhaps David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses.

As for how Objectivists deal with concepts of events or objects that cannot be observed or measured — it depends on what is meant by “cannot be observed or measured”. Aspects of reality which cannot be observed or measured perceptually must be dealt with by inference, using concepts which are themselves ultimately grounded in perception. We cannot directly perceive atoms, for example, but we know they exist based on a lengthy chain of scientific experiments the results of which are directly perceived. (See David Harriman’s article on “Proof of the Atomic Theory” in the most recent issue of the Objective Standard for a more detailed explication of this.) If, on the other hand, the question is about concepts of events or objects that by their nature cannot be reduced to the perceptual level, then the Objectivist response is that assertions of the existence of such events or objects is arbitrary and illegitimate. On what basis can such events or objects be claimed to exist? By definition we cannot have sensory evidence of them directly, nor can they have any causal connection to anything else that we can perceive and use to infer their existence conceptually. Such things cannot be identified either through the senses or through reason based on the senses, and there are no other legitimate means of obtaining knowledge about reality. Objectivism rejects faith, innate ideas and speculation absent evidence. The only “avenues of discovery” that are epistemologically legitimate are the senses and conceptual inductions and deductions based on the senses. Anything else is just making stuff up, and while that can be fun as entertainment it isn’t a path to knowledge.

I can’t really respond to the questions about Objectivism being a “child of nihilism” or a form of “atheistic existentialism” other than to note that, yes, it is an atheistic philosophy. I don’t find it nihilistic because it takes a very strong value orientation. Life matters, values matter, happiness matters, morality matters. That’s the opposite of any form of nihilism.

Ezra Levant is currently my favorite Canadian. He’s been fighting a solid, principled battle for free speech in Canada in the face of radical Muslims trying to use Canada’s “human rights commissions” to crush speech critical of Islam. Freedom of speech is the carotid artery of peaceful cultural change — block it off, and the prospects for improving the culture die with alarming speed. The kinds of things Levant is facing are a microcosm of the future we face in the United States unless we are vigilant.

I don’t know much about Mr. Levant or his views apart from the free speech issue, but on that he is dead-on accurate. Recently he testified before the U.S. Congress. He also has an interesting post commenting on testimony by a Pakistani diplomat on the efforts by Muslim nations to twist western legal systems into penalizing criticism of Islam (“blasphemy”) under the code word “defamation”.

Oh, hell, just go to his blog and read the whole thing. It’ll probably scare the pants off you, make you a better person and give your dog a bath, all at the same time.

Earlier today I received a phone call from a polling company. They wanted to ask me questions about my local water district authority. For the most part I was ignorant, but one of the questions struck me as extremely odd. There was a section of the survey in which they read me a series of statements and asked me to indicate whether and how strongly I agreed with them. One of the statements was “The water provided by the district authority meets all federal, state and local quality standards.”

Bear in mind that this was a random survey. I’m John Q. Public to these people. Now ask yourself what information you would need to be able to evaluate that statement. Do you know all of the federal, state and local water quality standards that apply where you live? Do you know the details of the contents of the water and the condition of the water infrastructure? I don’t, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. And without that information, there is no basis to hold any opinion on whether the statement in question is true or false.  The chance of any randomly selected person knowing what they would need to know to give a meaningful answer to that question falls squarely between ‘slim’ and ‘fat’.

If the people who made up these surveys had any grasp of proper cognitive methodology, asking such a question would be simply unthinkable. But, sadly, they do not, and they’re probably no different in that regard than the majority of the people they poll. As a result, these sorts of polls turn into an orgy of mutual subjectivism, in which the emotionally-driven responses of hundreds of people get aggregated together into a pseudo-objective sum. The fact that some percentage of people ‘think’, on no particular basis, that the water district is meeting quality standards winds up being adduced as evidence that the water district is doing its job well.

Collective inter-subjectivity as a substitute for objectivity. I’ve been back from OCON for less than a week, and already I feel like I’m surrounded by monkeys.

Anne comments: I was in a job once where I was tasked with creating a survey for the organization’s membership (approximately 20,000 people at the time). I had no particular experience in creating surveys, but I worked with a consultant who did. One of the things I was very careful about was to ask questions that would produce the data we actually wanted. That’s trickier than you might imagine, and involves taking into account all the possible exceptions that someone might have to a survey question — but without making the question so open-ended that it produces useless results.