Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)
In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)
Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.
Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies. Continue reading →
The definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.
Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe and sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.
Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.
Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.
Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure.
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.
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.
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 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 →
Note: 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 →