The Parrot, The Wind, The Gremlins, and Peikoff’s Doctrine of Arbitrary Assertion
When I read Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) a few years ago, I was impressed by his exposition of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But I also had some misgivings about certain ideas in his book—for instance, his doctrine of arbitrary assertion did not appear logical to me.
Recently I discovered Robert Campbell’s article, “The Peikovian Doctrine of the Arbitrary Assertion” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 10, No 1, Fall 2008). Campbell offers a thoughtful critique of Peikoff’s doctrine of arbitrary assertion. His article has me convinced that my misgivings on the doctrine are not farfetched. Peikoff’s doctrine is rife with logical flaws.
Campbell’s article is 86 pages long—in comparison, Peikoff’s explanation of the doctrine in OPAR extends across 9 pages (Chapter 5, “Reason”; Section: “The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False”; Pages: 163-171). Campbell analyzes the doctrine from every angle—he looks at the steps through which Peikoff has developed his doctrine, he provides information on the philosophical background in which the doctrine was originated, and he goes on to expose the instances where Peikoff and his acolytes are themselves guilty of making arbitrary assertions.
Since 1976 when Peikoff gave his lectures on Objectivism, the doctrine of arbitrary assertion has become a prominent feature in Objectivist epistemology. The publication of OPAR in 1993 has put the doctrine in front of a wider audience. But Campbell argues that the doctrine raises several questions. He begins his article by listing a few of these questions:
“Does an epistemology firmly grounded in facts about human mental functioning, as Rand’s claims to be, require a notion of the arbitrary? Is Peikoff’s notion of an arbitrary assertion clear? Does the concept have the scope of application that Peikoff stakes out for it? Should arbitrary assertions all be handled as Peikoff prescribes? Are the arguments for the doctrine sound?”
Campbell says that “these questions bear on the nature and quality of Peikoff’s work as a philosopher, and on the viability of Objectivism construed as a closed system.”
Consider the fact that in his 9-page elucidation of the doctrine in OPAR, Peikoff does not offer clear instructions on how to identify an arbitrary claim. He presumes that a rational person knows which claims are arbitrary, as he or she would know which ones are emotionalistic or irrational. By arbitrary, Peikoff does not mean false—he regards the arbitrary claims as being worse than falsehoods.
Here’s an excerpt from OPAR:
“An arbitrary statement has no relation to man’s means of knowledge. Since the statement is detached from the realm of evidence, no process of logic can assess it. Since it is affirmed in a void, cut off from any context, no integration to the rest of man’s knowledge is applicable; previous knowledge is irrelevant to it. Since it has no place in a hierarchy, no reduction is possible, and thus no observations are relevant. An arbitrary statement cannot be cognitively processed; by its nature, it is detached from any rational method or content of human consciousness. Such a statement is necessarily detached from reality as well. If an idea is cut loose from any means of cognition, there is no way of bringing it into relationship with reality.” ~ (OPAR, page 164)
Campbell detects several logical problems in this paragraph. He argues that “if what Peikoff says is true, what is the status of a correct judgment that a claim is arbitrary? How does one arrive at that judgment? How could one rationally judge an assertion to be arbitrary, except by engaging in correct cognition in relation to reality? If ‘the soul survives the death of the body’ is truly incapable of being cognitively processed, how can a rational person judge what evidence or arguments would be required to support it? For if the rational person has no idea what would be required, how can he or she go on to determine that the evidence or arguments have not been presented, consequently the assertion must be dismissed?”
Peikoff claims that the arbitrary statements are completely out of context, to the extent that they cannot be evaluated on the basis of any previous knowledge. Yet the four examples of arbitrary assertions that he gives in OPAR—belief in the existence of soul, belief in astrology, belief in existence of a sixth sense, and a convention of gremlins studying Hegel’s logic on the planet Venus—are intelligible. It is possible for us to evaluate these assertions on the basis of previous knowledge and declare that these statements are falsehoods.
If we believe Peikoff’s proposition that “gremlins” is an arbitrary concept which can never be cognitively processed then what about Phlogiston, the stuff that chemists in the mid-eighteenth century believed makes some materials combustible and is used up when they burned! Peikoff’s doctrine will lead us to believe that Phlogiston is an arbitrary concept and is therefore beyond the scope of human cognition. Campbell asks if the chemists in the 1770s and 1780s could have discovered what is wrong with the Phlogiston concept if they had adhered to Peikoff’s doctrine?
Peikoff makes hardly any sense when he asserts that a rational person must regard every arbitrary idea as a noise. “An arbitrary idea must be given the exact treatment its nature demands. One must treat it as though nothing has been said.” (OPAR, Pages 164-165). He makes even less sense when he claims that the arbitrary is outside all epistemological categories. “None of the concepts used to describe human knowledge can be applied to the arbitrary; none of the classifications of epistemology can be usurped in its behalf… An arbitrary statement is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false.’” (OPAR, page 165)
It is difficult to imagine a statement which is neither true nor false. Campbell posits that “if a claim can be refuted, it is not arbitrary; if it has been successfully refuted, one ought to conclude that it is false.”
In his 1997 lecture “Objectivism through Induction,” Peikoff claims that when we recognize an assertion as arbitrary we are trapped into an unthinking condition. “When you see that a claim is arbitrary, then you cannot think about its cognitive status at all. You can’t think about its validity as a claim. You can’t weigh it, assess it, determine its probability, its possibility, its invalidity, its truth, its falsehood, anything. It is non-process-able. A rational mind stops in its tracks, in the face of any attempt to process such a claim.” According to Peikoff, a tryst with an arbitrary assertion induces paralysis in a rational mind.
Campbell wonders “what the supposed paralysis would feel like, and whether one might need extensive training in order to experience it.” But Peikoff uses a shoot and scoot strategy in his lecture—he drops the word “paralyzed,” but refrains from explaining the nature of the paralysis.
In OPAR, Peikoff offers the examples of a wind-blown sand and a talking parrot to establish the charge that the arbitrary claims are meaningless. Here’s an excerpt:
“A relationship between a conceptual content and reality is a relationship between man’s consciousness and reality. There can be no “correspondence” or “recognition” without the mind that corresponds or recognizes. If a wind blows the sand on a desert island into configurations spelling out “A is A,” that does not make the wind a superior metaphysician. The wind did not achieve any conformity to reality; it did not produce any truth but merely shapes in the sand. Similarly, if a parrot is trained to squawk “2 + 2 = 4,” this does not make it a mathematician. The parrot’s consciousness did not attain thereby any contact with reality or any relation to it, positive or negative; the parrot did not recognize or contradict any fact; what it created was not merely falsehood, but merely sounds. Sounds that are not the vehicle of conceptual awareness have no cognitive status.” ~ (OPAR, page 165)
He goes on to declare:
“An arbitrary claim emitted by a human mind is analogous to the shapes made by the wind or to the sounds of the parrot. Such a claim has no cognitive relationship to reality, positive or negative. The true is identified by reference to a body of evidence; it is pronounced “true” because it can be integrated without contradiction into a total context. The false is identified by the same means; it is pronounced “false” because it contradicts the evidence and/or some aspect of the wider context. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence or context; neither term, therefore—“true” or “false”—can be applied to it.” ~ (OPAR, page 165-166)
The idea that a human being who makes an arbitrary assertion will have his cognitive abilities downgraded to parrot level is unbelievable. Campbell writes: “Even if we accept Peikoff’s contention that putting forward any assertion that he deems arbitrary is ipso facto an irrational act, it does not follow that the assertion is the product of a sudden complete interruption to one’s functioning as a cognitive agent—even if it is an interruption from which one can somehow quickly recover.”
But Peikoff prefers to preach with the zeal of an Augustinian monk living in Europe’s dark ages. He is convinced that all who disagree with his ideas belong to the lowest rung of hell. Consider these lines from OPAR (page 248): “A man who would throw away his life without cause, who would reject the universe on principle and embrace a zero for its own sake—such a man, according to Objectivism, would belong on the lowest rung of hell.”
In case of the doctrine of the arbitrary, Peikoff is, thankfully, not consigning the disbelievers to the lowest rung of hell, but the punishment he has in mind is still quite harsh. “The arbitrary, however, if a man indulges in it, assaults his cognitive faculty; it wipes out or makes impossible in his mind the concept of rational cognition and thus entrenches his inner chaos for life. As to the practical consequences of this difference, whom would you prefer to work with, talk to, or buy groceries from: a man who miscounts the people in his living room (an error) or who declares that the room is full of demons (the arbitrary)?” (OPAR, page 166)
It is clear that Peikoff is offering a blatantly loaded alternative. Campbell says, “Every day, human beings make mistakes with much higher impact than most simple miscounts will ever have. People fail college courses, run cars off roads, alienate friends, mismanage businesses into bankruptcy, crash airplanes. Conversely, from Peikoff’s point of view, if a prospective seller, coworker, or conversational partner believes that his friend who recently died is now in heaven, walking on streets of gold, he is as fully in the grip of ‘the arbitrary,’ and should be as assiduously shunned, as the man who believes that his living room is swarming with demons.”
Once he is done with exposing the logical inconsistencies in Peikoff’s doctrine, Campbell moves on to conduct an investigation into the doctrine’s origins. In the introduction to OPAR, Peikoff has denied making any creative contributions in the book. He says that much of the book’s material comes from the philosophic discussions that he had with Ayn Rand over a period of decades. He says, “Our discussions were not a collaboration: I asked questions, she answered them.” (OPAR, Page xv) Should we then believe that Ayn Rand is the real author of this doctrine?
But Campbell points out that there is no evidence to suggest that Rand could have articulated the doctrine in the flawed form in which Peikoff presents it in OPAR. “She used the word ‘arbitrary’ rather often, but never in a way that signals the technical meanings that Peikoff expounds in OPAR.” In the context in which she uses the word “arbitrary,” it functions as a close synonym for “nonobjective” or “irrational,” and in some cases it serves as a substitute for “subjective.”
Campbell says that in a somewhat different form, the doctrine was articulated by Nathaniel Branden in an article in the 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter. In his article, Branden says: “When a person makes an assertion for which no rational grounds are given, his statement is—epistemologically—without cognitive content. It is as though nothing has been said. This is equally true if the assertion is made by two billion people.”
Braden did not take the idea of “arbitrary” to the level where it might serve as an alternative to “truth” and “falsehood.” Campbell writes: “Branden restrained himself from concluding that ‘arbitrary’ is a truth value, or a way of being wronger than wrong, and he tried to qualify his claim that arbitrary assertions are ‘without cognitive content.’ He neither declared that arbitrary assertions ‘cannot be cognitively processed,’ nor offered comparisons with dunes shifted by the wind or speech sounds mimicked by a parrot. Branden indicted agnostics for cowardice, but not for zero-embracing nihilism. The focus of his article was on the irrationality of demanding evidence or argument in violation of the onus of proof principle.”
Also, Branden did not turn the arbitrary into a basic epistemological category. “He regarded the distinction between faith and reason as fundamental, not the distinction between the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary.” Campbell informs us that Branden reflected on the arbitrary assertions in two Basic Principles of Objectivism lectures. While Branden believed that assertions about witches and goblins refer to nothing, he did not declare that arbitrary assertions cannot be cognitively processed. For him, “the negative consequences of accepting arbitrary assertions are one and the same as the negative consequences of supposing that faith is a shortcut to knowledge.”
While there are problems in Branden’s theory of arbitrary assertions (Campbell discusses these in his article), his version of the theory is more robust than the doctrine that Peikoff’s offers in his 1976 lectures and OPAR. Campbell presents evidence to show that Branden (writing under the guidance of Rand) was the primary author of the doctrine of arbitrary assertion. Peikoff picked up Branden’s doctrine and dished it out in a vastly distorted format. Also, Peikoff’s failure to acknowledge Branden’s contribution to the doctrine is unethical and unscholarly.
In the article's final section, Campbell comments on the issue of denial of credit to Branden: “The implications for Peikoff’s standing as a philosopher are distinctly negative. If Peikoff lifted the core idea without attribution from Branden’s (1967) lectures, as he appears to have done, he is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. His refusal to credit Branden’s (1963) prior publication on the subject is, in any event, unscholarly. He has elaborated the doctrine significantly; however, the best that can be said about Peikoff’s own contributions is that he has performed better on many other occasions.”
I conclude my article with this question: Will Peikoff’s doctrine of the arbitrary assertion survive Campbell’s critique?
It is clear that that the doctrine is illogical but the intellectuals with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) continue to defend it—as if Campbell’s article does not exist. Campbell published his article in 2008 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—in the past nine years his article has provoked very little discussion in Objectivist circles. I find it strange that an article which practically demolishes the doctrine proposed by a personality such as Peikoff has not been comprehensively evaluated by the ARI. The lack of reaction to Campbell’s article exposes the insular and cultist nature of the Objectivist elite.