Ontology and The Problem of Universals: An Objectivist Comments

shiny_red_applesAyn Rand is sometimes accused of misunderstanding the “Problem of Universals,” that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Boethius and William of Ockham have dealt with for millennia.

The Problem of Universals consists of the question: To what do people refer when we use terms that can be applied to different particular things? For example the term “man” is applied not just to one entity, but to many entities that are each called a “man.” Another example is “spherical.” Many different things can be said to be “spherical.” An answer to the Problem of Universals will explain how this use of single terms for multiple different objects works.

In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, (ITOE) Rand claims to have solved the ancient Problem of Universals. She describes in detail the process by which man forms generally applicable concepts from his perceptions of particulars in reality. Critics sometimes charge that Rand is giving us an epistemological theory when a solution to the Problem of Universals calls for an ontological theory. (Ontology, properly conceived, is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the most fundamental classification of existents; it is the study of “what there is,” metaphysically.)

But considering the Problem of Universals purely ontological, and thus considering Rand’s theory of concept formation irrelevant to it, improperly privileges variants of “Realism” (about universals) by treating the rejection of such abstract objects as sufficient to define a single theory (variously referred to as “Nominalism” or “Anti-Realism.”) The rejection of universals in external reality does not specify a positive theory of what universals are and how they are related to external reality. Much more explanation is required to do this, as evidenced by the various subcategories of Nominalism/Anti-Realism. In ITOE, Ayn Rand presents an alternative theory on the level of the variants of Anti-Realism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (i.e. Predicate Nominalism, Resemblance Nominalism, Trope Nominalism and Conceptualism.)

Continue reading

QuickPoint 5: Any Claim to a Probability is Also a Claim to a Certainty

Are you saying you're certain that that's the probability distribution?

Are you saying you’re certain that that’s the probability distribution?

Whenever anyone says that some statement’s truth is probable, whether they give a numerical percentage or not, they are making a definite knowledge claim: that the statement’s truth is probable. Whether the probability is measured by a percentage, or relative to some other statement(s), the person is claiming that that is the probability’s measure.

In other words, the person claiming a probability is claiming a certainty about the probability, itself.

If such a person claims that his estimate of the probability is based on another probability, then the question becomes, “What is the prior probability based on?” The failure to provide at least one certainty at the foundation of one’s estimate of such probabilities leads to an infinite regress, or to a baseless circle–neither of which is rationally tenable.

Thus, for any claim of probability to be based in reason, it must be founded on at least one absolute certainty. And so a claim about the probability of any statement’s truth implies at least one claim to certain knowledge.

—–

Related Posts:

Taking Philosophy Seriously…

Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

The Bible (New Testament) as Evidence

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

The Formal Refutation of Determinism and The Validation of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)

fork-in-the-road

Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human choices, are the necessary results of prior events, and that no human decision could have been different than it was.

Objectivism holds that determinism, specifically with respect to human conceptual consciousness, is self-refuting, because it makes conceptual knowledge of any kind impossible. Since this includes the premise of determinism itself, such determinism is incoherent. This self-refutation of determinism extends not only to so-called “hard determinism,” but to compatibilism, as well. In fact, it extends to any theory that does not recognize a fundamental choice made by the individual that determines conceptual beliefs.

(The only way to self-consistently hold determinism is to hold that conceptual beliefs are completely infallible, and that there is no such thing as a false belief. And then there would be no need to argue for determinism or even to assert it: everyone would agree on every issue with which they had experience.)

Thus, a libertarian theory of free will is the only type that is tenable. The rest of this post will explain how and why this is so. First, for intuitive simplicity, I will make use of a very apt analogy for human minds, beliefs, and truth. Then I will present a formal reductio ad absurdum of physical-mental determinism in both an unabbreviated and an abbreviated form. Then I will briefly describe the Objectivist theory of free will (volition) and its consistency with the Objectivist view of causality and the laws of physics. Continue reading

The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

The Objectivism Seminar is a podcast series that features informal discussions of the works of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and others, (mostly Objectivist intellectuals.) It takes the form of a conference call between a number of Objectivists/Students of Objectivism, where they summarize, discuss and mull over the ideas presented.

This episode features a nice discussion of the section of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism (OPAR), titled “The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False.”

The Objectivism Seminar: The Arbitrary

Here’s the TalkShoe page for the podcast.

Here’s the Ayn Rand Lexicon page on the Arbitrary.

—–

Related Posts:

Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

The Bible (New Testament) as Evidence

A Refutation of the Argument from Design

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandAt root, subjectivism, intrinsicism and Objectivism are theories of the nature of concepts or “universals.” Here, I summarize them in regard to their view of the nature of truth and knowledge. Since truth is an attribute of statements composed of concepts, each school’s view of truth is a direct outgrowth of its view of concepts.

Subjectivism holds that truth, in effect, resides only in the mind. For a subjectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, based solely on one’s mental choices, subjective processing, or emotions. (Kant (by implication), Wittgenstein, James, Sartre, etc.) “Truth” amounts to whatever one believes, and there is no such thing as “knowledge” of reality; only some sort of “experience” inside one’s own mind.

Intrinsicism holds that truth resides disembodied out in the world. Typically, intrinsicists hold that all people have to do is somehow “open their hearts to God,” or “pay attention to their intuitions,” or “open their minds to the light of truth,” and the “external truth” will infallibly push its way in. If the truth is already “out there,” then there’s no reason to think that any special processing is required to reach it; one merely has to absorb it. (Plato, Aristotle (partially, in regard to essences), Apostle Paul, Augustine, etc.) For an intrinsicist, conceptual knowledge is whatever external truths one happens to have absorbed. A particular statement is “true” for everyone, whether they have any evidence or not. (And it’s an arbitrarily answerable question whether various people can be held responsible for not grasping all the “floating truth” out there.) (1)

Objectivism holds that truth and falsehood are aspects of conceptual knowledge. Truth (and perceptual knowledge) is a relationship between a consciousness and reality. Truth is reality, as conceptually processed by a consciousness. Truths do not exist disembodied in external reality. Only physical entities (and their aspects–including other consciousnesses) exist in external reality. I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning (by the method of logic.) For an Objectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, only when there is a radical difference in the relevant perceptual evidence available to the two people. It does not depend on mental choices, subjective processing, emotions, or whims. (2) A statement can also be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another: People can have different levels of evidence that change how the statement ranks on their “epistemological determinacy” scale. (From arbitrary, to possibly true or false, to probably true or false, to certainly true or false.)

There is much more to be said about this topic, and I recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, for more.

—–

(1) To be clear, most modern, intellectual intrinsicists (and many such subjectivists) go to great pains to cloak their theory of knowledge in the appearance of reasoning from observation. They use the language of natural science and the formalism of deductive arguments. But this is all rationalization or inconsistency, because, for intrinsicists, the ultimate basis of “knowledge” is just to “feel the [allegedly external] truth.” For subjectivists, whatever their pretenses about subjectivism being necessitated by objective science, that self-contradiction wipes out objectivity on their part, and they thus imply that there’s no such thing as knowledge of reality. (What distinguishes knowledge of reality from fantasy is that knowledge is objective.)

(2) Some clarification on mental choices and truth: When I say that truth does not depend on mental choices, I am referring to what one might call “normative truth”: what the person ought to consider true. This depends solely on what parts of reality the person has observed, (i.e. what evidence he has.) What the person will actually claim as truth does depend on a mental choice: the choice to think about the evidence or not. This is why I say, “I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning…” The normative truth is a potential I have, based on my current context of perceptual evidence. Reaching this truth is exercising the choice to fulfill (recognize) the normative truth.

Note also that the position of one’s body can be affected by prior mental choices. Only in this narrow sense can what one perceives–and thus one’s normative truth–be affected by mental choices. Once one has actually perceived something, mental choices are irrelevant to the normative truth.

[Substantial Edit: 2/28/15: My statement that, “For an Objectivist, a particular statement cannot be true for one person and false for another, (2) but it can be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another,” in the fourth paragraph was altered to say that it is possible for something to be true for one person and false for another, based on evidence. I no longer agree with the old statement, and I don’t think Objectivism supports it. Footnote (2) was also altered to explain the current view.]

—–

Related Posts:

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

The Proof of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)

Taking Philosophy Seriously…

A Refutation of the Argument from Design

The Scope of Evidence Pertinent to a Proposition Corresponds to the Scope of the Proposition

General evidence can prove generalizations. Specific evidence is required for specific propositions. The scope of sensory data that can tie a statement to reality (serve as evidence) varies with the scope of the statement.

If I make the statement, “All men have heads,” then the scope of potential, direct evidence for this statement (and counterexamples) is all men. I can observe a few random men and have a sensory basis to at least hypothesize that “All men have heads,” is true. (Exactly when I can logically say that a generalization is proven, is the subject of the epistemology of induction. While the principles of general induction are not yet fully known, the philosophy of Objectivism and the principles of modern science/technology show that induction works. I recommend Dr. Peikoff’s course, Objectivism Through Induction.)

If, on the other hand, I make the statement that “Julius Oglethorpe III lives at 10 Warkworth Terrace in Cambridge, England,” then I can’t gain a basis for hypothesizing that statement (let alone proving it) by observing a few random men. I need evidence that pertains to the specific statement at hand. To hypothesize, I need to see effects of the fact that Julius Oglethorpe III exists, or the fact that 10 Warkworth Terrace exists. To prove this statement, I need to see a set of facts that all evidence shows can only come from the fact that a man with this name lives at this address.

In both cases, the evidence that warrants the hypothesis or conclusion reduces to sensory data. But the evidence for the specific statement is much more specific than that for the general statement.

[Note: This short article was derived from a longer comment I made at “The Christian Egoist” blog: D’Souza vs. Bernstein: Is Either Good for Mankind?]

—–

Related Posts:

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

The Proof of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)

Taking Philosophy Seriously…

A Refutation of the Argument from Design

QuickPoint 1: Thinking is Individual

There are some people who say that ideas are products of a culture as a whole–that no one stands apart from the collective.

But where do ideas come from originally? Before an idea could be in many minds, it had to be in one mind. Thus, ideas come from individual thought. People can and do learn a great deal from others through their experience, but the process of thinking is a fundamentally, inescapably individual process. Learning from others does not mean parroting word sounds, but thinking about the material you are given. Before an idea can be taught, it must be thought of by an individual. Innovative individuals are those who use their own minds to think of new ideas, and thus move the “knowledge of the culture” (i.e. the sum of the knowledge of the network of communicating individuals) forward.

When people work to solve problems as a team, any individual who isn’t thinking on his own, with his physically separate brain, will not contribute to the discussion and will not make any breakthroughs.

—–

Note: At some point, I will likely write a longer article on this issue.