Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Continuing Conversation

Last week I wrote a long and involved post about a critique of Classical Education, written from an Objectivist point of view by private school educator Lisa VanDamme, which a friend had pointed out to me. Now, I did not set out to write a detailed critique of Objectivism; however, since VanDamme's criticisms ultimately stemmed logically from the premises upon which Objectivism is based, I should perhaps have suspected that any criticism of Van Damme's critique, written by a Christian, would eventually wind up as a discussion of First things. One can't pull that one thread out of the tapestry without unraveling the whole thing....

So an Objectivist reader, Michael M, took issue and decided to challenge some of my assumptions; and I decided to respond, and challenge some of his assumptions, and so on. Each comment got longer and longer as the pile of threads on the ground kept getting bigger and more tangled.

So I've decided, now that the conversation has moved way beyond educational theory, to pull the conversation over here to a new post and comment thread. That way, we won't be cluttering up the previous post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.

We'll instead be cluttering up this post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.

So this post is intended to continue the conversation that was started in the Mushrooms post. So if it seems like it's starting a little abruptly, go read the Mushrooms post and all its comments first; and if you're still interested, you can wade through what follows.


Michael M, in your latest comment you said:
However, you chose to use Objectivism to bludgeon your opponent even though your grasp of the philosophy is scant at best. There is no excuse for such behavior.
I'm presuming from the context that you're referring to statements like this one from my original post:
But there are some problems with [VanDamme's preceding argument]. I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've heard plenty of atheists make this claim, but I've yet to hear even a definition of "dignity of the individual" that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it. And while the Objectivists certainly claim that Reason supports their views, there are all kinds of collectivist atheists (such as Marxists, and Fascists in the Mussolini mold) who make the countering claim that Reason supports their collectivist ends, which are very different from those desired by the Objectivists.
And you're saying that it's rather unfair for me to make these claims, when my grasp of the objectivist philosophy--especially its take on Reason and morality--is "scant at best." This is a fair accusation, and I'd like to offer a bit of explanation.

In judging the worth of any system of morality, it's important to consider (among other things) the question, "Why should I submit myself to this system? What are the consequences if I ignore this system, or intentionally defy it?"

Now, my understanding of the Objectivist take on Reason-based morality is certainly limited, but there are a few points that are quite clear to everyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with it. Objectivism thought concludes that the only legitimate basis for adult human interaction is one of mutual consent. This principle, if expressed society-wide, would manifest itself economically in free market and strong property rights; and would manifest itself politically in a very limited government, concerning itself with law enforcement, contract enforcement, defense of the homeland, and not a whole lot else. Schemes that use government power in the service of general wealth redistribution are absolutely rejected. Objectivist thought further concludes that the individual has intrinsic worth that is not tied to the needs of any collective. As a consequence of this, no person is expected to live his life for the benefit of others; all coerced collectivism is rejected. People may come together for mutual benefit; but all people have the right to be disassociated from any organization. As regards religion, you yourself have explained where objectivist thought stands:
In a reason/mysticism dichotomy, Marxism and Christianity are not opposites. They are on the same side. Marxism demands faith in a collective that cannot be measured. Christianity demands faith in a supernatural being that cannot be defined. Therefore, neither is able to place the use of physical force under objective control, because truth to each is subjective. In the hands of either, governments inevitably embrace tyranny.
Additionally, "altruism" is considered a dirty word in Objectivist circles. My copy of The Fountainhead has brief notes at the end about Objectivist principles, and states (beginning with a Rand quote):
"Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus, Objectivism rejects any form of altruism--the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
Everything I've written above is apparent to any first-time reader of The Fountainhead.

Now let's explore the question, "what happens if I ignore this moral system?" I'll do so by giving a couple of examples.

First, there are my parents. They've been Christians their whole lives, and they have successfully passed on their faith to their three sons. My parents also happen to be happy, fulfilled people, still in love with each other after 40+ years; and I and my brothers are very happy to have them as examples in our lives. Now, as Christians, they are guilty of the unreason of mysticism--which, if I understand correctly from the context of your writing, manifests itself as an unshakable belief in something which was not revealed to them through Reason, but which nevertheless motivates their actions. And yet, so far as this son can observe, they are completely content with the lives they live.

Now, what would they gain by rejecting their religious faith and embracing Objectivist thought? If they're already living happy, fulfilled, well-lived lives that are an inspiration to those around them, I'm not sure what they'd gain by switching that would make it worth their while. Even if Objectivists are right about everything and my parents' faith is being placed in an illusion, there are still several tangible things that would be strained or destroyed if they made the switch--including the friendships of many of the people they know, and the relationships with many, many close and beloved family members. And it's not like Objectivism has a version of Hell into which they'll be cast unless they make that switch. I can't see anything truly worthwhile that they'd gain, that would make up for what they'd lose, if they rejected their Mysticism and embraced pure Reason.

Second, and on the complete opposite end of the scale, consider Robert Mugabe--the dictator of Zimbabwe. This man has, through nearly thirty years of (admittedly irrational, racist, redistributionist) misrule, turned what was once the thriving breadbasket nation of southern Africa into a nightmare of a place. Now, I'm perfectly willing to agree with any Objectivist on the folly of the policies this man implemented that brought his country to its current state. However, suppose he decided suddenly to embrace Objectivist ethics, and:
  • disbanded most of the police,
  • gave the displaced (white) farmers their land back,
  • announced that he was accepting the true results of the recent election and stepping down,
  • thus kicking out the entire administration serving under him?
Well, there's a non-trivial chance that he'd be swinging from a lamppost by nightfall--and if he didn't, his successors would likely force him to stand trial for the horrors he's inflicted on the people. The fact is that dictators of all stripes keep their power precisely through methods that violate Objectivist ethics. If Mugabe started obeying these ethics, his party would abandon him (out of their own interest in survival), and if he survived them, he'd have to face the rest of the country--the very country he starved--without any allies. For him to embrace Objectivist Ethics would, ironically, be the supreme act of altruism--sacrificing himself for the good of the people. But if he values his power--let alone his survival--his interests lie in rejecting these ethics.

Third, and somewhere in the middle: consider all those politicians who stay in power by hoovering up all the taxpayer money they can, to bestow goodies on their constituents. Now, you could argue--and I would entirely agree--that this is highly irrational as a matter of economic policy (and as a matter of the liberty of the people). However, so long as the people are willing to vote themselves other people's money, the politician has an interest in redistributing other people's wealth in such a way as to keep himself in power.

Now, suppose a senator has a change of heart, and decides "this is irrational." What then? Well, the people of that state still have to pay taxes to support all the other senators' grandiose Monuments to Me, but they aren't getting any of the goodies because of their senator's adherence to principle. Such a senator loses influence within the Senate (because of their refusal to play the mutual back-scratch game), loses influence among the Lobbyists (because of their refusal to provide favors), and often influence among the voters (partly because voters often want the pork, and partly because the campaign contributions dry up when the lobbyists go away). So if the senator values his career--and I suspect that most find it a very comfortable and satisfying career--he will generally find it against his tangible interests to embrace the Objectivist system of morality.

So, "What happens if I ignore this moral system?" Depending on the circumstance, I may even wind up better off than I would otherwise have. There are just too many cases of people benefiting (or at least not suffering) by embracing mysticism, and there are just too many cases of people personally benefiting by embracing redistributionist policies. We're back to Job's dilemma, only in this case there's no Divine Justice to make everything work out in the end. This is what I meant when I said,
I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual.
Emphasis added. A universal system of morality is, by definition, one with no exceptions; no one escapes the consequences of violating the system. As my above argument shows, this does not describe Objectivist ethics.


And this has some very serious real-world consequences.

Consider the nature of political power: it is, largely, a collective affair. That is, political power comes from a large number of people working toward a common goal. If one person storms the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" he merely gets arrested or shot by the police. But if a million people storm the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" then the government has a big problem on its hands.

This very fact creates strong incentives in any society--especially, but not exclusively, democratic ones--to put together collective movements. The cry, "Our lives could be much better if we could just join together and act as one!" is very seductive, precisely because there's a certain amount of truth to it. If you happen to belong to a downtrodden class of people (or a class of people that thinks it's downtrodden, or a class of people that thinks it's a class), often times it is possible to form a faction that gets more respect in the political sphere than the individuals would if they didn't combine their efforts. Now, this results in a political landscape where everyone's trying to steal from everyone else, which certainly counts as irrational in my book. But....

But imagine that you're one of the noble few who refuses to play this game. What then? Well, you wind up being the stuckee that gets to pay for everyone else's class consciousness. The principled Objectivist who rejects the pork, who rejects being part of a faction (with the collective discipline that being part of such a faction entails), winds up tangibly worse off than everyone
else. Now, the Objectivist could argue that his actions are in fact still rational, that they at least are not contributing to the degradation of freedom and prosperity that the redistributionist factionalism is committing--and I'd agree with that. But note that this is an altruistic argument, at least the way the term is widely understood: the Objectivist would be intentionally choosing to pursue a course of action in the name of the greater good, at tangible cost to his own wealth and political power.

Now consider what politics would look like, if Objectivist principles were dominant. There would be no factions out there demanding they be given a chunk of other people's wealth, or that industry be regulated to their specs; there would be no politicians trying to confiscate tax money to send back to the voters; and businesses would rise and fall based entirely on how well they navigated shifting market conditions. Now, how do we get from our faction-ridden, redistributionist, increasingly regulated system to this Objectivist Nirvana?

Well, at some point (among other things) the factions have to be disbanded. But think about what that entails: the people who make up these factions give up a great deal of their own political power when their faction gets disbanded. It improves the lot in life of everyone else, but it can cost a lot to the people who constituted it. There are a lot of livelihoods tied to the ethanol subsidy, after all; if all that government money went away, a lot of jobs that were paid for with that money would go away too. So while everyone may in theory want these factions to go away, everyone wants to start with the other factions. No one wants to be the one to go first. That would take a whole lot of altruism on the part of a whole lot of people.

But if it's tough being the only people in society who don't have a faction to represent one's interests and bring home the goodies (as you're having to pay for everyone else), it's awfully nice being the only people in society who do have a faction to represent one's interests. A society where everyone else operates on the market system (thus resulting in a prosperous economy), where you get their wealth distributed to you? I suspect the last few redistributionist factions to be disbanded would fight like the dickens. It's good to be the last ethnic militia in a war-torn country to have to give up one's guns....

In short, it's really, really hard to see how we get from the system we have now to an Objectivist ideal. There are just way too many incentives for people to behave "irrationally"; the Objectivist may claim that things will work out better in the long run, and they may well be right; but that's cold comfort to the corn farmer whose livelihood depends on the ethanol subsidy. It would take an awful lot of altruism for him to oppose that.

I don't think it's any surprise how few truly libertarian societies there have been through human history. No wonder the Objectivist society in Atlas Shrugged could only come to power after the previous order had completely collapsed; it's hard to imagine any other way such a society could form. There are just too many malign incentives out there.

But suppose we actually managed to get there. We now have a society run along Objectivist lines. Well, how do we manage to keep it an Objectivist society? Consider the fact that political power comes from numbers, acting in concert; sooner or later, some group of people will figure out that they can improve their wealth and power in this society by grouping together as a faction and demanding some kind of redistribution or other favorable treatment.

And to the extent that one faction succeeded in getting special treatment, it would be much, much harder to prevent the next one, and the next. I suspect that an Objectivist society would be a meta-stable system, like a pencil balanced on its point; it lasts so long as everyone buys in. The moment enough people in power can be flattered or intimidated sufficiently to allow one form of redistribution or regulation, it's Katie Bar The Door as everyone else will find it to be in their own financial interest to get in on the rush before they're left as the chumps paying for everyone else's goodies.


So where am I going with all this? A quick review:

1. Objectivism holds that Reason is a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent, system of morality. This is Objectivism 101.

2. Objectivism holds this system of morality advocates a society based on mutual consent, free-market captialism, and individual self-esteem and worth. This system of morality rejects all forms of altruism. This is also Objectivism 101.

3. However, if one wishes to bring an Objectivist society into existence, altruism on the part of its inhabitants is absolutely necessary. My argument on this point--which relies on nothing more than my own personal reflections on the nature of political power, my own reading of the news, and statements 1 and 2--I just described in great detail.

(And although I don't make the argument above--collective action on the part of Objectivists to keep it Objectivist may be necessary, too.)

4. And if someone rejects the morality of the Objectivist, that person does not necessarily suffer thereby. In fact, as the example of my parents illustrates, they can live quite well, in peace with themselves and their neighbors. My argument on this point relies on nothing more than my own personal observations of the news, and of the people in my life, and on statements 1 and 2.

After considering all this, I came to a conclusion that somewhere in statements 1 and 2 there is a contradiction. After all, if you have to have widespread altruism to create a society that rejects altruism in all forms, that looks to me like a contradiction. Where exactly is the contradiction? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it lies in one of two places: either a Reason-based society does not reject collectivism as thoroughly as Objectivism thinks, or (my own personal belief, which I've outlined above) Reason is not a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent system of morality.


I have a bit of a confession to make. After I came across the contradiction in statement 3 above, I rather gave up trying to look too much further into the writings of Objectivism. I suppose it's possible that I've missed some important reasoning on the part of an Objectivist philosopher that squares this circle; but at some point, when you're evaluating a philosophy that appears to have contradictions, you eventually give up, decide that what you're looking for is probably not there, and move on.

Michael M, I'm sure--after reading your eloquent description of why and how you left your younger faith--you can appreciate this last point.


Anonymous said...

heh heh, are you familiar with Pascal's wager?

Favela Cranshaw said...

Since you have decided that the Philosophy of Objectivism contains a major contradiction and cannot be true, you apparently think you have done something philosophical. To do philosophy you must resolve the contradiction and you are unwilling to do so. It's just as well that you have quit trying.

Daniel Macintyre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Macintyre said...

Actually, he simply penned a refutation - this is a perfectly valid action. In fact, it is part of the philosophical process - if no one were allowed to point out a contradiction in an argument, then one could make any wild claim he felt like without fear of challenge.

As far as resolution goes, the "philosophical" ball is now in the court of the objectivists. THEY are the ones who must resolve the contradiction or abandon their assumptions.

Michael M said...

When I first saw your article, I thought, "Oh no, this will take forever!" But after I read it I realized that there was only one error that towers above all the others. So I am able to reply with this one sentence:

There are never, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions consistent with reality.

... and implicitly:

There are always, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions inconsistent with reality.

... the caveat:

... anyone's inability to detect, understand, and integrate these notwithstanding.

As much as I would enjoy pointing out various false assumptions and factual errors in your hypotheticals, I will, for your sake, try to resist. To do so would lend legitimacy to
your practice of using concrete examples not to illustrate principles you have defined and validated, but rather as validations in and of themselves. You need very much, instead, to start functioning at a more fundamental level.

Objectivism is not, as you call it, a "moral system" per se. It is a philosophy, with all of the usual branches -- metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and esthetics. As a philosophy, it is a comprehensive definition of the essential nature of reality and the nature of man. Its moral system -- the Objectivist ethics -- is derived from logical conclusions about how we should value and act on our values given its definitions of the nature of reality and the nature of man. Its politics is an extension of the ethics in an individual context into a societal context.

The validity and efficacy of the philosophy depends entirely on the quality of the links it draws between what it holds reality to be and what reality actually is -- in principle. If those links are accurately drawn, all of the hypothetical scenarios you can create postulating negative consequences of adhering to Objectivist principles will be by definition contradictions of reality that necessarily rely on false assumptions and unwarranted speculations. If the links are inaccurately drawn, your hypotheticals will be superfluous.

Here is a visual aid: Knowledge is an inverted pyramid. The flat area at the top contains the infinite number of possible concrete facts we can know. On the point at the bottom is that single self-evident axiom that is the most fundamental fact of reality: existence exists. All knowledge in between is arranged from more fundamental and abstract at the bottom to more specific and concrete at the top. All parts of the pyramid are interconnected by the stairways and hallways of logic.

Your hypotheticals have been constructed by you in the topmost layers of the pyramid. Objectivism, a philosophy, operates in the bottom of the pyramid. If you want your hypotheticals to communicate something of value to us other humans, you must draw us a logical map connecting one with the other. But before you will be able to do that, you will have to do some defining in the bottom of the pyramid.

You asked how you could benefit from a philosophy like Objectivism. Well, when I referred to it as "comprehensive", I was talking about the thoroughness of its map. At the top of the pyramid is a disparate array of ideas in art, politics, sports, business, etc. that operate on principles of thinking and behavior that, by definition, share common fundamental principles deeper in the pyramid on which they logically rest. A good map simultaneously provides you with breadth and depth of understanding. That in turn provides you with, among many other things, a crucial foundation stone of self-esteem: the awareness of your own efficacy.

Another fringe benefit a good map offers is in communicating ideas to others. When you reach stalemate in a debate over intellectual differences, it is usually caused by the fact that you are arguing with conclusions consistent with principles deeper in the pyramid on which you disagree. No meaningful resolution of differences or change of mind can occur at a higher level of the pyramid if those differences rest on more fundamental differences below. Therefore, efficient debate requires that you must descend to your deepest differences as fast as you can, resolve them, and ascend back to the top together, step by step.

If this conversation is to continue and have a chance to be productive, you have to descend the stairs and find our most fundamental difference.

It doesn't matter much where you start. The best place is with a topic of great interest to you. The only qualifications required are an honest mind and a willingness to think while suspending all unsubstantiated preconceptions. The conversation will automatically gravitate to the point where it should have started.

I suggest, subject to your approval, that the best starting point would be altruism.

I'm going to post this comment now, and as soon as I can carve out the time, I will start on "altruism - virtue or vice?" Or, start it yourself. But humor me, please, and take a shot at defining altruism, and maybe relating it to some ideas about the nature of man and reality without using any hypotheticals or even examples. And keep in mind that when you assert that something is part of the essential nature of man, you must mean all human beings who ever were, are now, or ever will be, because that is what the word "man" refers to in this context.

And I cannot imagine why anyone writing on the subject would not want to first read the 18 oh-so-brief excerpts from Rand's oeuvre on the subject of altruism that are but a click away:


Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

This is entertaining to read, especially when the scary guys make comments.

Wendy Power said...

Hm. This is why I blog about my cat. :)

Michael M said...

Wikipedia currently says, "Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose."


Now that Ayn Rand has finally demonstrated the efficacy of Reason to man in the 20th century, a new speculation about God has emerged, Michael M's Wager:

"The existence of God cannot be determined through Reason. Though all men are free to "wager" as though God does exist (just to be on the safe side!) they should take into account that Reason would have to be God's crowning creation and gift to man. It endows man with the capacity to grasp everything that exists in the universe that God wants man to be able to know and to use that knowledge to perfect his life.

God would not have given man Reason if he did not want man to use it in accordance with its function. Furthermore, any rejection of Reason, such as the arbitrary replacement of it by the Satanic anti-capacity of Mysticism to fabricate false ideas of the universe, or worst of all, false ideas of the nature or will of God, would most certainly constitute the most damnable sin.

Thus: man would need only one commandment: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt falsify neither gods before me, nor the nature of me or my creations.

Thus: there would be only one mortal sin: the rejection of God's Reason in favor of Satan's Mysticism.

Thus: in the end, Heaven would necessarily be occupied by God and all of the rational atheists who ever existed.

Thus: all who abused the rational minds God gave them and stubbornly clung with nothing more than faith to religions that worshipped allegedly revealed gods would necessarily reside with Satan in the fires of Hell for eternity."

Thus: it would perhaps be better not to "wager" on the existence of God after all.

[Copyright 2008 Michael M All Rights Reserved]


Timothy Power said...

Michael M, you quite correctly say:

"When you reach stalemate in a debate over intellectual differences, it is usually caused by the fact that you are arguing with conclusions consistent with principles deeper in the pyramid on which you disagree. No meaningful resolution of differences or change of mind can occur at a higher level of the pyramid if those differences rest on more fundamental differences below. Therefore, efficient debate requires that you must descend to your deepest differences as fast as you can, resolve them, and ascend back to the top together, step by step... If this conversation is to continue and have a chance to be productive, you have to descend the stairs and find our most fundamental difference."

And for this reason, I think it would be pointless to start by debating altruism, since our difference starts much deeper than that. I think the source of our difference comes at a point very close to the tip of that inverted pyramid: on the power of Reason by itself to answer the needs of Man.

The Objectivist holds that Reason and experience are sufficient to answer any legitimate question Man needs answered for guidance in life; I, like most believers in God, believe that they are not. Reason and experience are necessary, they have their time and place; but they are not sufficient.

How would anyone prove this position? Well, one would have to find some legitimate, important question Man faces, and show that Reason and experience are insufficient to answer it. I happen to believe that these things are insufficient when it comes to defining coherent, universally-valid moral value systems.

Now, it's very difficult to prove a negative: one could theoretically disprove every Reason-based ethical system invented by man, and not actually prove the point, because there may be some other as-of-yet undiscovered system out there that actually works. But...

If it is true that Reason and experience are insufficient, then it follows that any proposed moral value system based on Reason will contain some contradiction, or some unsupported initial assumption, or some exceptions, or some kind of flaw. And in my essay, I pointed out what appear to my eyes some flaws in Objectivist ethics--a trio of real-world exceptions, and a contradiction. While this argument may indeed be wrong--I don't claim to be infallible--it's not illegitimate.

So no, I'm not actually mucking around at the top of the inverted pyramid--I'm arguing a point right at the source of our differences.


You also criticize my use of examples and hypotheticals in my arguments:

"The validity and efficacy of the philosophy depends entirely on the quality of the links it draws between what it holds reality to be and what reality actually is -- in principle. If those links are accurately drawn, all of the hypothetical scenarios you can create postulating negative consequences of adhering to Objectivist principles will be by definition contradictions of reality that necessarily rely on false assumptions and unwarranted speculations. If the links are inaccurately drawn, your hypotheticals will be superfluous."

I call foul.

Imagine a scientist who said,
"We don't need to run experiments to test this theory. If the theory is sound, any contradictory result will merely be evidence that the experiment was poorly designed. And if the theory is faulty, the experiment is superfluous anyway." This argument may be a lot of things, but it is not science, and it is not reason.

Fact is, it is entirely legitmate to use hypotheticals and examples to keep philosophical arguments rooted in the real world. Examples and hypotheticals are to the philosopher what experiments are to the scientist: a way to test theories to see whether they work, or if they need to be reworked or discarded. If I say that "all widgets are lugubrious", and you say, "wait--here's a widget that's not lugubrious", then you have disproved my statement by showing that it doesn't match reality.

What you described in that paragraph was a system where the evidence of one's own eyes can be rejected, if it contradicts the logical edifice constructed by Objectivist philosophy. I gave three examples of parties who reject Objectivist ethics, and who are arguably better off for it. If you simply claim, "No, they're not, because that would be illogical within the Objectivist framework," you are telling me to ignore what I see with my own eyes, and that insults my intelligence. Explain to me how they are in fact worse off, or show me something about them that I haven't observed, and I will listen; but if you insist, against the evidence of your eyes and mine, that "There are always, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions inconsistent with reality," I will have to conclude that you are accepting this on faith.

This kind of reasoning, in fact, I have only come across before in a few places: among some of my more fundamentalist brethren, and in cults. It is a common practice in these settings to start by laying down a philosophy, and discouraging the initiate from evaluating observations of the real world, or of scripture, or any other source of truth until that philosophy has been so ingrained that the initiate interprets every sensory perception from then on through that lens. As I said before, I've previously only run across this approach in religious settings, and pretty scary ones at that; and the only healthy reaction to that is to run far, far away.

I sincerely hope you misstated your position.

And my use of hypotheticals and examples doesn't need a response by you to legitimize them; they are legitimate already. If you see something wrong in my arguments, point it out; I want to know these things. But if you won't point it out, please don't try to claim "You're wrong anyway" and try to change the subject, and please don't try to declare that time-honored rhetorical techniques are now somehow out of bounds. I have no patience for that.


Your statements:

"There are never, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions consistent with reality...

There are always, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions inconsistent with reality...

... anyone's inability to detect, understand, and integrate these notwithstanding."

In a slightly modified form, what you've just described is known in Christian theology as Natural Law, and it's been a part of the faith (in one form or another) since at least St. Augustine of Hippo. Nothing new there. A good description of this, in layman's terms, can be found in the early chapters of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, if you're at all interested. I happen to think that Natural Law is a big deal, and we humans need to understand as much about the universe and human nature as we can, so we can be in compliance with it. But the big difference between what you've described, and what the Christian believes, is that the Christian recognizes that sometimes people do benefit from doing evil things; natural forces in the universe and human nature do not always right all wrongs in this life. There are innocents who die poor, oppressed, and alone; there are thugs who die rich, prosperous, and satisfied. The only way your three statements above can be true, is if the "in the long run" phrases include something that happens after these people die, because it sure doesn't happen before they die. That, again, is something that honest people have been observing since at least the time that someone invented writing.


Oh, and regarding your "Michael M's Wager?" Cute. I like it. It tends to fall down on its own terms, since it contains the very kind of assumption about God's preferences that it condemns; but I'd have to give it points for originality--

--if it didn't look so much like what the Gnostics came up with nearly 2000 years ago. Try again.

Timothy Power said...

Jarrod, This is absolutely the last time I click on any link you send me.

Yah, go on and laugh. I'm coming after you next.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Jarrod, This is absolutely the last time I click on any link you send me.

Yah, go on and laugh. I'm coming after you next.

Oh, I see how it is, blame other people for your problems. ;-)

(Hmm, you guys have different sunday-school lessons than what I expected.)

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

'Course, come to think of it, you guys do hunt Moose (meese?) with fighter jets and I notice that your brother and sister-in-law go to pretty strange Church of Christ sunday services that look like a real hootenanny with guns 'n all.

Maybe I shouldn't provoke you guys too much? ;-)

Michael M said...

I will address your reply this weekend, but in the meantime, you said of my "wager":

"... it contains the very kind of assumption about God's preferences that it condemns; ..."

I have looked for this, but cannot find it.

The only assumption I have made throughout about God is that His preferences are manifested in the identity (nature) of his creations. Failing direct access to God, one derives man's "oughts" from God's "is".

The assumption of religions about God that I condemn is that His preferences may be whatever the creators and sustainers of the religion want them to be. Rejecting all allegiance to God's "is" religions feel free to concoct multifarious identities of man and God Himself "validated" with their own interpretations of ambiguous documents that are nothing more than historical hearsay.

Reason, in my "wager", is the humble servant of God's "is". Faith is its arrogant traitor.

Michael M said...

"--if it didn't look so much like what the Gnostics came up with nearly 2000 years ago."

My "wager" is as close to a non-mystical conception of God as you can get. Gnosticism is as far from that as any other religious concoction, albeit in a slightly different direction. So I'm going to hold on to those points until you can show me some Gnostics that weren't mystics.

Michael M said...

Timothy, you said:

"Reason and experience ... are insufficient when it comes to defining coherent, universally-valid moral value systems."

But the words "defining", "coherent", and "universally valid" all presuppose the application of reason to experience. Furthermore, reason applied to experience is the means of acquiring knowledge. So, in order to know of something other than reason and experience that could define and validate a moral system, you would have to use reason applied to experience, which would make it sufficient after all.

This is an instance of the stolen concept fallacy -- the attempt to destroy a concept by using other concepts that are logically dependent upon its existence.

Then, you also said:

"If it is true that Reason and experience are insufficient, then it follows that any proposed moral value system based on Reason will contain some contradiction, ..."

Another stolen concept: something [properly] based on reason cannot contain a contradiction, because logic is the method of reasoning, and logic is, by definition, the art of non-contradictory identification.

In other words, every contradiction is illogical and therefore not rational, and therefore, nothing that is rational can contain a contradiction.

Contradictions do not exist in reality. The discovery of a contradiction is proof that reason was misused, and some aspect of reality was misidentified or not properly integrated.

Timothy Power said...

Actually, you're reading more into my argument than I said, and more than I intended to say. I am not trying to "destroy" reason by using concepts that were defined based upon it. Rather, I am making an argument that is much more mundane: showing, by using Reason, that there are some things that Reason cannot accomplish.

There is an entire class of problems out there that Reason is incapable of solving. In many cases, the use of Reason affirmatively shows that these problems have no solution, because the existence of such a solution would require some kind of contradiction.

Here are a few real-world examples:

First, in mathematics there is something called the Probit Function, which has use in probability and statistics. This function has been positively proven to have no closed-form, analytical solution. We can only calculate it based on numerical approximations, but the function itself cannot be broken down into any combination of arithmetic, trig functions, exponentials, logarithms, or any other functions. Reason not only won't help you find a closed-form solution to the Probit function, it positively informs us that no such solution exists.

Second, there are the Incompleteness Theorems, developed by Kurt Gödel in the 1930's. These are pretty complex, but they conclusively show that it's impossible to find any system of axioms for mathematics that are simultaneously complete and consistent. If your mathematical system has a set of axioms that is consistent, then it cannot be proven to be complete, and if the set of axioms is complete, then it cannot be proven consistent. This has some real-world ramifications, too: It follows that it is impossible to write a computer program capable of debugging itself.

But if the above examples are a little esoteric, here's an easier one to understand: Reason will not help us if we try to build a perpetual motion machine. In fact, it's pretty well proven it impossible, absent the discovery of a whole new Physics that we currently have no reason to think exists.

So my statement, "There is an entire class of problems out there that Reason is incapable of solving," is true: I've just given several examples of things that go in this set. Our use of Reason won't help us to solve the Probit function in closed form; it won't help us create axiomatic systems that are provably complete and consistent, simultaneously; it won't help us write self-debugging software, and it won't help us develop perpetual motion machines.

Now given that there are indeed problems that Reason can't solve--and that the use of Reason itself tells us that these problems have no solutions--the central question we have to answer is: is a complete, consistent ethical system something that Reason can achieve, or is it one of those things--like perpetual motion machines or self-debugging software--that would require a logical contradiction?


Before continuing on that point, I need to say a little something about the "Stolen Concept Fallacy", which you define as "the attempt to destroy a concept by using other concepts that are logically dependent upon its existence."

On the one hand, I think you've misapplied this argument in this case. I am not trying to destroy reason; I am merely using the tools provided by Reason to find the limits inherent within Reason itself--which is not an illegitimate exercise, as the above list of unsolvable problems shows. If a problem has no rational solution--and many don't--often our use of Reason itself will prove this fact to us. This doesn't "destroy" or discredit Reason at all. Just because a plumb bob is wrong for one job, doesn't mean you should throw away your plumb bobs.

But I think there's a much, much deeper problem with your argument. In trying to understand what you were saying, I decided to do a little googling, and I discovered something very interesting: the fallacy of the Stolen Concept only shows up in the context of Objectivist (and perhaps other atheist) epistemology. It is certainly not considered one of the classic logical fallacies; and it doesn't show up in mathematical reasoning, so far as I can see. Only Objectivists and other atheists seem to use this terminology, and only in the context of trying to root out and eliminate "Mysticism".

And I think there's good reason this fallacy doesn't get called out in a wider range of circumstances.

You see, one of the most powerful tools in the logician's toolbox is the Proof by Contradiction. You consider a premise X; you then start following the chain of implications (X implies Y, Y implies Z...) until you reach a contradiction (like Not-X, Not-Y, or Not-Z); at this point, you know your initial assumption (Premise X) was false, and therefore its opposite (Not-X) is true. This is a powerful tool; a big chunk of our mathematical knowledge is based upon it.

The problem with the "Stolen Concept Fallacy", simply stated, is that it outlaws the Proof by Contradiction. Let's say I start with hypothesis X, and reason to the point of contradiction. (X implies some Y, Y implies some Z, Z implies not-Y, Contradiction!) Now let's say you jump in and declare: "You can't do that because concepts Y and Z depend for their meanings upon X, therefore you can't use them to void X!" Well, this may fit your stated definition of "Stolen Concept Fallacy". But it is absolutely not a fallacy. The fact is, if Concept Y has no meaning outside of Concept X, being entirely defined by it--but nevertheless contains or leads to a contradiction, then it is not a fallacy to declare Concept X as erroneous, because the child concepts it gave rise to contain contradictions.

It is entirely legitimate to "attempt to destroy a concept by using other concepts that are logically dependent upon its existence". That is the very essence of Proof by Contradiction. If the "child" concepts--which are logically dependent on a "parent" concept--contain contradictions, then the "parent" concept that gave rise to them is false. QED.

As you've defined it, the "Stolen Concept Fallacy" is nothing more than an attempt to outlaw Proof by Contradiction against Objectivist positions. And that is the real fallacy here.

It is, in fact, a very specific fallacy: it's a case of Assuming the Conclusion, where the conclusion being assumed is the full sufficiency of a reason-based epistemology. And the full sufficiency of a reason-based epistemology is precisely what is being debated here.


So now we're back to the problem of creating a set of issue Reason-based ethics. Is this problem part of that (non-empty!) set of problems which Reason tells us has no solution? That is an entirely legitimate question.

My argument has taken the form of a slightly modified Proof By Contradiction:

--Assume that Reason and experience are sufficient to define a universal and coherent moral code.

--Assume, further, that the Objectivists have used Reason and experience to form such a moral code, making no logical errors along the way.

--Now look for a real-world example of a contradiction.

If I actually can find a real-world example of such a contradiction, then it follows that at least one of the given assumptions is flawed: either reason and experience are insufficient to form the basis for a universal, coherent moral code; or the Objectivists have made a flaw in their logic.

So we're back to all those examples I gave in my essay. And to that list I'll throw another one: Fidel Castro is clearly a man who has rejected Objectivist ethics. He has run a brutal collectivist state for many decades, and by most reliable indicators has destroyed what was once a thriving, wealthy economy and robust civil society. And yet, as he nears the end of his days after a long and comfortable life, he is by all accounts satisfied with what he has done and where he has led his nation; he is celebrated by millions upon millions of (in my mind, deluded) leftist supporters across the globe, and he's been living a life of comfortable luxury.

Now tell me: why should Mr. Castro give a flying fig what the Objectivists think is right and wrong, reasonable or unreasonable? If he completely ignores you and the ethical system you believe is built on Reason, what happens to him? If you cannot provide a tangible, non-evasive answer to this, then you don't really have any standing to declare that the code of ethics proposed by Objectivism is universal; and therefore my original charge that "Reason and experience ... are insufficient when it comes to defining coherent, universally-valid moral value systems" remains unfalsified, and possibly unfalsifiable through Objectivist epistemology. I will further conclude that your embrace of this system is based on faith and on bad logic.


I'll respond in the near future to your comments about your Wager; but the above is enough for one night.

Timothy Power said...

Typo: "So now we're back to the problem of creating a set of issue Reason-based ethics."

I have no idea where that stray word came from. It should read: "So now we're back to the problem of creating a set of Reason-based ethics."

It's late.

Michael M said...

The efficacy of reason:

Reason is a human capacity. It does not solve problems. Humans solve problems by using their capacity to reason. It does not function except when initiated by a human choice. Choosing to not use it or to misuse it does not preclude its future use in other instances by the same or other humans.

Example: The fact that humans over thousands of years were unable to grasp with reason that the sun was at the center of our planetary system did not preclude it being explained and validated by Galileo in the 17th century. Nor is it in any way justifiable to claim that the prior failure to grasp it precluded the application of reason to any other branch of knowledge.

The inability of humans to produce a perpetual motion machine can have several different explanations. But none of them preclude any human from using reason to identify the nature of man and the principles (code of values) that define the actions of humans that will enhance or detract from their life as humans.

And when these are defined, they will only be coherent to the extent they are well reasoned with logic. They will only be universally valid to the extent that they are accurately defined with reason in reference to that which is universally human (which can itself only be identified by the correct use of reason).

Because humans use reason to form concepts with abstractions from their sensory perceptions of existence, the product of the process, knowledge, is necessarily contextual. The context of potential knowledge as a whole is perceivable existence, both exclusively and all-inclusively. There are no corners of knowable existence where reason cannot be efficaciously exercised. Until and unless an existent is perceivable, it is unknowable and cannot have value in reference to our lives.

So you concluded:
"Now given that there are indeed problems that Reason can't solve -- and that the use of Reason itself tells us that these problems have no solutions -- the central question we have to answer is: is a complete, consistent ethical system something that Reason can achieve, or is it one of those things ... that would require a logical contradiction?"

The number of identifiable problems that cannot be solved by humans using reason is never less than infinite.

Your question whether the use of reason can result in a valid ethical system in one branch of knowledge might just as well be be applied to all branches of knowledge. The selection of ethics as the subject of this question is arbitrary.

So you are effectively saying: "There are so many things we do not know yet, that we must ask ourselves, "can anything can be known at all?"

If you ask that question and answer yes, your skepticism about the efficacy of humans using reason dissolves into nonsense. If you answer no, all knowledge becomes nonsense -- that question and this blog along with it.


Attila envy:

Inherent in the process of defining human actions and relationships to existence that enhance or detract from the life of a human is the recognition that one cannot contribute to one's life by actions that contradict one's nature. The validity of this does not depend on an opportunity to actually experience it or witness it happening.

Example: one can be certain the mushroom will kill you without eating it or seeing someone else eat it. And one should not assume there is no negative consequence to eating it when one can only see someone savoring its flavor with the greatest of pleasure.

Thus I repeat: There are always, in the long run, negative consequences to a human being from his own ideas and actions that are inconsistent with reality.

Your speculation that Castro and Mugabe can escape this fact is a claim that humans can contradict their nature and get away with it (bad lesson for your child). It requires you to equate the physical and psychological quality of life of those who commit their horrors with that of those whose code of values does not contradict their nature -- from the simplest honest man to human history's greatest achiever. Your purpose in life is to produce that which will enable you to survive and flourish as a human, and you are rewarded with your own self-esteem. Your speculation that tyrants can achieve this in spite of their horrible actions is, at best, a moral justification of their crimes and, at worst, a rejection of the necessity for ethics altogether.


Stealing stolen concepts:

You might be right about the applicability of the "stolen concept" to your two quotes. At the very least they are an obtuse application. It is not significant to our discussion, however, because if they are not stolen concepts, they are just garden variety self-contradictions.

That does not, however, mitigate this error: who first identified the fallacy of the stolen concept, who uses it or doesn't use it, how many do or do not use it, how classical or not classical it is, or the purpose it is used for by anyone -- are contrary to your insinuations, irrelevant to the validity of the fallacy itself. Ideas stand on their own, or not at all.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Can someone, without using circular reasoning (and preferably using small words and short sentence structure) why I should do what is in my own best interest.

I guess I just don't understand why, based upon reason alone, doing what is in my own best interest is a good thing.

Timothy Power said...

Michael, I haven't forgotten about you. I owe you a response, but I've been dealing with stress at work, and a wonky internet connection (hopefully now fixed), out-of-town company, and just general family duties. I'll get you a response soon.

Michael M said...

...And I am preparing a speech for next weekend, so I cannot reply until after May 18.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Um, where do universal, transcendant, and immaterial "things", like the laws of logic, come from? How does Objectivism account for them? Or does Objectivism assert they are brute facts?

Michael M said...


As I said, I cannot reply in depth this week, and for complete explanations on epistemelogical issues you really should check out Rand's and Peikoff's writings.

For a quickie intro, there are some basic-level excerpts from those books at aynrandlexicon.com. Go there and click on the C letter - then on "Concepts". Also, under the S there are entries on "Supernaturalism".

The next level would be the Epistemology section of Peikoff's "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand".

The most complete would be Rand's "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology".

I expect you will find that calling them "things" loaded the question, as "transcendant" and "immaterial" do not refer to things, but rather are negations of things. And the laws of logic are the principles by which one exercises the art of noncontradictory identification of existents. All of these are integrations of abstractions from perceived existence (achieved partly by isolating those aspects of a thing that are "universal" to all instances past, present, and future.)

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...


I understand. Take your time in getting back to me. We all have to take care of first things first.

I am not playing coy either. I want to know, how an atheistic universe (i.e., matter and energy only) can account for the presence of universal, immaterial "things" like the laws of logic.

I think we agree they exist, but I want to know how they can be accounted for in an atheistic matter-in-motion universe (other than asserting their presence is just a brute fact).

Michael M said...


You are asking about the metaphysical status of things we classify as immaterial. (Let's take one at a time).

They do exist, but only in the form of mental integrations of abstractions from perceived reality. They do not consist of matter and energy at all (beyond our human brains that create and hold them).

What is the difference between the metaphysical status of the Santa Claus that lives at the North Pole and flies in a sleigh drawn by reindeer from house to house at Christmas and the Santa Claus at Macy's in the weeks just before that day?

Both concepts are derived from perceptions of reality.

The first is immaterial, because metaphysically it exists only in the form of a mental integration that can only be experienced indirectly by means of the concretizations of that image in works of art (And that is the true purpose of art -- to concretize ideals that can be conceived of but do not actually exist). While the component abstractions are derived from existing entities, the particular combination of them -- Santa Claus of the North Pole -- does not refer to any existing entity.

The second is material -- the concept refers to an actual entity that has taken on (mimicked) all of the characteristics of the immaterial Santa Claus in order to give children the experience of an actual encounter with the "real" Santa Claus. This material Santa is actually one of the concretizations of Santa referred to above -- he is engaging in the art of theater.

To treat the concept of Santa as referring to someone who "really" exists, and not just as an actor, requires the primitive stage of mental development common to children under 5 years old. They do not yet have the experience to know how to check their premises and verify references to reality.


Here is a view of existence from another angle:

Existence can be divided into two categories -- relevant existence and irrelevant existence -- relevent meaning in reference to the choices of actions that are our life.

Our knowledge of existence is always contextual. It is extracted from and verified by all of existence that is knowable at any given time because it is either directly or indirectly perceivable. Because the extent of knowable existence is always finite (while the universe is always infinite), we must sometimes say, " we do not currently have enough evidence to know that." So, the only portion of existence that is relevant to the choices of actions that are our life is (or should be) knowable existence. Anything else, existing or not is irrelevant, and for all practical purposes, does not exist.

Example: There could now be galaxies way beyond anything we will be able to perceive for a million years. But in the current context of knowledge, we must say that they do not exist. That statement in the context of knowledge being contextual does not preclude the eventual discovery that at the time we said they did not exist, they were actually out there.

In any case, under no circumstances should we alter the science of astronomy in any way based solely on our speculations that they might exist.

Now ponder the damage we would do to the science of astronomy if we were to establish as a matter of policy that it is ok to posit them and believe that they actually do exist as an article of faith.

And finally, apply these principles to theism.

Anonymous said...

A great and awesome thread .... is there more? Some thoughts I have,

1. I see both arguments as very credible, and this might be a contradiction that so people can not tolerate

2. I would like to see Tim apply the Christian based solution to the political / hypotheticals he has proposed

3. I think reason needs a common definition accepted by both sides if it will serve as the fundamental point of debate.

4. I think reasonable minds do an can disagree.

Hope all are alive and well to continue this fantastic discussion!