Why Definitions Must Be Justified by Evidence

An amazing Earth with rising sun and water. Philosophy tells us what we can know by reasoning about the origin of water.Are definitions a matter of arbitrary social convention?

Well let’s find out if it makes sense to say that they are. Let’s imagine that Adam’s culture defines “space pixie” as “one of the living creatures that has wings, and whose species is solely responsible for bringing water to Earth.”

If definitions are arbitrary matters of social convention, then Adam can reason like this:

  • Premise 1: If there is water on Earth, it was brought by space pixies.
  • Premise 2: There is water on Earth.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, (only) space pixies brought water to Earth.
  • Premise 3: All things that bring water must exist at the time it is brought.
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, space pixies must have existed.

This argument is deductively valid: If the premises are true, then the conclusions must also be true.

Furthermore, this argument is sound (has true premises and is valid–irrefutably correct) given the stated definition of “space pixie.” If definitions are arbitrary cultural inventions, then Premise 1 is “analytic”–that is, it is true purely by definition: One need only examine the definition of “space pixie” to find that Premise 1 is true. Premise 2 is an empirical truth, obvious to anyone who observes Earth and holds the common definition of “water.” Premise 3 simply states an indubitable fact: that things that act in reality must also exist.

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Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

The Virtue of SelfishnessIn The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand wrote,

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” [“blank slate”] It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value. If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer. The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.

Here Miss Rand is referring to the specifically human form of emotion. But let’s start with the most basic form in which emotions manifest: in non-human animals.

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


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

A Facebook Debate on the Right to Abortion

The following exchange is taken from the comments on a post on the Objectivism for Intellectuals Facebook page. Rather than using the name of my interlocutor here, I will refer to her as “Her.” Irrelevant portions of the debate have been omitted.

Her:  So, being against abortion is irrational? I had no idea murder was a faith-only immorality.

Me:  It’s not murder if an embryo or fetus doesn’t have rights as an actual, independent human being. The religious “basis” for considering embryos to have rights is that they have already received a “soul.” This “soul” is a mystical construct with no basis in reality. There is no rational basis for a soul that can be separated from a developed and functioning brain. The mother is an actual, independent human with rights. The embryo is not.  Continue reading

Why Morality is Not “Evolved,” But Defined and Chosen

Star-Wars-Evolution-Evolution-Funny-485x728Note: I recommend reading the entire article, but if you really need just a summary, scroll down to the bottom of the post and see the “Summary” section.

I often hear people say that morality is evolved, especially those who are in the naturalist-humanist camp. But what would it mean for morality to be “evolved,” and is it true? Physical evolution by natural selection is a well established fact, but is the view of human moral theories and practices as products of evolution, in the same category?

To start to answer this, we need to clarify what we mean when we say that “morality is evolved.”

The first part of this statement is “morality.” What is morality? Ayn Rand defined morality as “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” (1) So morality is a code or set of fundamental values accepted by choice, in order to guide particular choices toward some ultimate goal. Along with the basic, primary values in morality, come the basic types or modes of action by which the basic values are to be achieved. These basic modes of action are called “virtues.” Continue reading

The Theme

A musical theme for this blog. I choose it not because it’s my favorite piece of music ever, (though it is fairly high on the list) but because it fits how I feel about the blog. I only wish it were longer. This theme music for the blog has been added to the About page, and may change from time to time.

Why Each Person Can Have Only One Ultimate Value

A value is, in Ayn Rand’s words, “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” It is a goal of a set of actions. Most values are pursued for the sake of gaining other values. For example, a new hammer may be pursued in order for someone to build a scaffold. The scaffold is itself pursued in order to allow the construction of a house. The house is pursued in order that the builder may live there and thus have a richer, more comfortable life. The hammer is valuable in order to get the scaffold, the scaffold is valuable in order to get the house, the house is valuable in order to improve one’s quality of life. This progression can be termed a “value chain.”

A value chain cannot go on infinitely. A person must have some ultimate value that serves to justify and motivate the others. A set of value chains that converge on a single ultimate value may be termed a “value tree.”  The ultimate value is an end-in-itself that is never pursued primarily as a means to something else.

An example of a hypothetical value tree. This tree would be possible for someone to attempt, but would be unsustainable. Click to enlarge.

An example of a hypothetical value tree. This tree would be possible for someone to attempt, but would be unsustainable. Click to enlarge.

So the question I will answer is: Can a person be committed to more than one separate value tree, each leading to a separate ultimate value?

Having two different value trees means that two different sets of actions are required to achieve each ultimate value. The actions required to achieve one will continually conflict with the actions required to achieve the other. Thus, a choice will be required to select only one of the two appropriate actions at a given time. As one obvious example, consider a man who has Ultimate Value 1 (UV1) as “freeze apples” and Ultimate Value 2 (UV2) as “bake cakes.” He has just obtained eight hundred dollars. He owns neither a freezer nor an oven. If he wants to pursue UV1, he should buy a freezer. If he wants to pursue UV2, he should buy an oven. How is he to decide where to spend his money? The way one decides with a single ultimate value is by determining which option better promotes that ultimate value in the current situation. But with two distinct ultimate values, there is no way to decide rationally. The man making the choice might as well flip a coin. There is no rational way to decide which ultimate value to pursue at any given time.

Having an ultimate value means that every decision should be weighed by how much it contributes to that ultimate value. It means that the person should plan in advance for how best to achieve as much of the value as possible. It means ruthlessly cutting out any value that is not a part of that particular value tree, because only values that serve the ultimate value are justified. In the case of UV1, this means freezing as many apples as possible while one is alive. For UV2, this means baking as many cakes as possible. But if a man holds these two “ultimate” values, then he cannot plan in advance how to achieve either one to the best of his ability. There are necessarily many situations where he does not act to gain and/or keep each of the purported ultimate values. The very fact that there are two “ultimate” values means that they violate and contradict each other. So, in a very real sense, he does not actually value either of the “ultimate values” as ultimate values.

Therefore, having two ultimate values is, in a strict sense, self-contradictory and impossible.

More realistic examples of attempts to posit more than one ultimate value will be discussed in upcoming articles. One article will deal with one’s own life versus socialization as ultimate values (Link) and another will discuss an example of life vs. flute playing.

I also recommend Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith.


Related Posts:

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

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

Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

There are many people in the world who will say that values are subjective. You may or may not be one of them. For many, the reasoning behind this stance is that they see that different people value different things, and they think that if values were objective, then everyone would value the same things. So they conclude that all values are the opposite of objective, which is subjective.

This article will give evidence and argument that this view is mistaken; that this reasoning is based on a confusion about what it means for values to be objective.

First, let’s consider a simple physical situation: Two men are standing on opposite sides of a pole, as shown in Case 1 of the figure below. We are looking down on them, and they are both facing upward. For Person A, the pole is on the right. For Person B, the pole is on the left. Does this mean that the position of the pole is subjective? No. Both men can look objectively at the relationship of the pole to each one. If they specify whose relationship to the pole they are talking about, they can both agree on the fact of the relationship.

Relational and Objective Values Diagram

When Person A observes that the pole is on his right, Person B can observe that Person A is correct: relative to Person A, the pole is objectively on the right. They can also both agree that, relative to Person B, the pole is objectively on the left. The position of the pole is objective, but its physical relationship with Person A is different than with Person B. Continue reading

QuickPoint 2: Altruism Supports Coercion…

…or “A Problem With Libertarianism”

Under altruism, (the morality of self-sacrifice,) an act of self-sacrifice can be good, even if the person sacrificing doesn’t choose to do it.

If someone’s interests are sacrificed by government force, the person committing an unwilling sacrifice doesn’t get moral credit for the act, because it was unchosen. But the act itself can still be considered “good”, apart from the choices of the “self” being sacrificed. A sacrifice is a sacrifice, regardless of whether it was freely chosen or imposed by a legal authority. Thus, under altruism, any sacrifice can be good, so long as it “benefits those in need.”

In practice, the forced imposition of sacrifice is justified on dual grounds: it will benefit those in need, while simultaneously punishing those who violate morality by being selfish. Since everyone, according to the altruist morality, really should be self-sacrificial anyway, who can object to the overall project of forced charity? We can quibble about the practical details, say the altruists, but if we want a moral society, how can we leave the needy at the mercy of other individuals’ choices?

Under the morality of altruism, the advocates of government coercion are right: A moral society requires forced charity, because without it, those who don’t sacrifice for the welfare of others will be rewarded and encouraged, and those “noble altruists” who are in need will be “left at the mercy of the selfish.”

The only way to fight this thinking is to fight for the morality of rational egoism, as established and advocated by Ayn Rand. For rational egoism, an act can only be good if it is freely chosen by the acting individual.

I highly recommend this book on how to fight for a free market: Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government.


Related Posts:

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

The Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Link Highlight: Introduction to Objectivism Playlist